[Big thanks to Zach for putting this together -yfbb]
I wish I could tell you that I bought season tickets to the Nets with the foresight that the Bulls would meet them in the first round of the playoffs, but that would be a very loud lie. Rather, a group of friends and I thought that seeing an NBA team open a new building might be fun, especially when said team promised concessions from local restaurants such as brisket banh mi.
Sure enough, it delivered. The stadium is beautiful, the food is delicious, the wifi is incredible, the t-shirt gun reaches the back row of the upper deck (!) and the Nets themselves... well, that's another story. Oh, the mascot too. The mascot makes you want to dent things.
Despite the outlay of approximately eleventy billion rubles, owner Mikhail Prokhorov's team remains inherently flawed and at times, a fairly unwatchable product. I can count the exciting Nets moments of the season on one hand and that's mostly because it usually had a cheeseburger in it. Whenever you feel like questioning Gar Heard (or whoever's actually doing the roster building in Chicago), remember that Billy King traded the 8th pick in the 2012 draft, aka Damian Lillard on a rookie wage scale, to pay Gerald Wallace $40 million over 4 years. Ouchies.
So what else have I learned?
A number of times this season, my friends and I have looked at each other during Nets games with the gaze one might make at an insurance seminar. This is for a couple of reasons. First, good hell do the Nets plod along. They "ran" the third slowest pace in the league, scored the second fewest fastbreak points and on the rare occasion they did push the ball, you ran into the other reason they are boring as hell: The Nets have zero finishers. Lopez moves (and sounds) not unlike Treebeard from LOTR, Reggie Evans literally cannot dunk (I've seen him miss four attempts this year alone), and Gerald Wallace has aged like he drank from the wrong Holy Grail during the offseason. There simply aren't any athletes that can run and finish at the rim on this team, a fact that pleases me greatly since it seems like uber-athletes eat the Bulls for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prepare yourself to see many Nets possessions where at least four players have openings to the rim and annoyingly kick out so the next guy can have a chance to drive and kick some more. Then Joe Johnson gets the ball with three seconds left on the clock and shoots a fadeaway two with a foot on the line, which he somehow makes. Riveting stuff, I tell you.
The Nets are statistically average to slightly below average on defense, a grade confirmed by the eye test. Never, in more than a dozen games this season have I found myself saying "Woooeeee, they are TENACIOUS right now!" Granted that's a dumb thing to say, but great defense affects me so. The Nets make competent rotations and rebound well (The Reggie Evans Effect), but seldom get into passing lanes and never pressure ball handlers. That they commit the 4th fewest number of fouls in the NBA is offset by being 24th in points in the paint allowed (non-pace adjusted) and 26th in turnovers caused. The Bulls make you miss. The Nets hope you do.
HOW THEY SCORE
Where Brooklyn can burn you - and have done so increasingly well late in the season - is the Deron Williams/Brook Lopez combination. Lopez is a savant offensively - to say nothing of his amazing 1950's-style set shot he shoots off the glass - and if Joakim Noah can't play at least moderate minutes in this series, the Bulls could be in trouble. Against Nazr Mohammed in their last meeting, Lopez went 8/9 from the field in the first quarter and had Nazr doing the Jordan shrug, except he did it for being extremely not good. Williams, now healthy, looks as good as he has since those final years in Utah when he was in the conversation for best point guard alive along with ol' Derrick What's-His-Name. His last game against the Bulls he put up 30 and 10 and did so rather effortlessly. Joe Johnson, the Nets go-to scorer early in the season, has been extremely limited since a flare up of plantar fasciitis in his heel and has been an enigma in the Nets' offense ever since.
Besides the Deron/Lopez combo and late shot clock Iso-Joe, it's really a mixed bag. Some games Blatche will show up, although his coach recently said his conditioning was lacking, 81 games into the season. Wallace has struggled with a capital UGH all year. Teletovic can shoot but defends like he's looking for a place to go pee. Kris Humphries makes $12 million a year to wave a towel, but wow can he fling that sucker. Former Bull CJ Watson can still shoot the 3 but looks even less effective overall than his final year in Chicago. Jerry Stackhouse had a fun few games early on but is basically a coach wearing shorts. Team-wise, the Nets are top ten in the NBA in both 3-point shots attempted and made, as well as being 7th in free throws made, indicative of the aforementioned drive-and-kick offense. The only soft underbelly here is a 73% free throw percentage, good for 25th in the league. Hey, it's something, especially if the Bulls are playing from behind (which they likely will be).
JEKYLL AND HYDE
If I were Thibs, I would simply tell the Bulls to stay close and wait until the third quarter to make a move. No team gives it up in the third quarter like the Brooklyn Nets. You can set your watch to it. They will run out to tremendous leads (second in NBA in 1st quarter scoring margin), have a Gatorade at the break, and promptly decide to give it right back (25th in 3rd quarter scoring margin). The reason is simple and helps explain why the Bulls have had such success against a vastly superior offensive club: When the Nets offense breaks down, it cartwheels off a cliff in a ball of flames. The ball stops moving side to side which plays right into the strong-side defensive schemes Thibs is credited with proliferating in the NBA (1st in opponents' assists per game). And with complementary players like Keith Bogans (sorry Bogey), Wallace (canNOT shoot), Andray Blatche (burp) and Marshon Brooks (What is the opposite of taking the leap? The fall? Marshon took the fall this year), Brooklyn doesn't have enough individual talent to compensate for all that ball-stopping. Especially with Johnson injured, when the Nets get outside of their bread and butter sets, there is no plan B.
This series is going seven. All four contests have been close so far this year, the Nets can't hold onto a lead and the Bulls won't stop grinding until we're all dead (Lu first). The relative health of Noah and Johnson will likely decide the outcome, but I'm picking the Bulls because their home court advantage far outweighs that of the Nets. Barclays crowds, at least so far, have been novelty-seekers, hipsters, Knicks fans trying to make the switch, corporate sponsors and enemy spies like me. That's like asking a fart to lift you up.
Bulls win in 7 games