With Kirk Hinrich already out with the calf injury suffered in the marathon game 4, the Bulls suffered another blow to their roster, a trend that's gotten to a absurd level: some kind of virus that hit Luol Deng, Nate Robinson, and Taj Gibson. Deng didn't play at all, and reportedly was given a spinal tap to rule out meningitis before being sent home. Nate Robinson was shown on TNT throwing up during his brief periods on the bench. We already know the injuries that Gibson and Joakim Noah have been playing through this series.
And yet, the Bulls still came very close to winning this game and advancing. A lot of it was due to an apparent mindset that while the Nets were the ones facing elimination, the Bulls were playing with more desperation. And we can only hope that doesn't mean they'll be completely wiped by the time Game 7 arrives in Brooklyn. Noah is already guaranteeing a victory, and I wouldn't dare tell him otherwise.
In a night of some very good (and gutsy...OK, maybe not the right word on this night) performances, Noah's was the most memorable to me. He came out with crazy intensity getting to offensive rebounds and other loose balls, and had a 10pt, 8reb first half. Noah finished with a 14/15 double-double, plus 5 assists and 5 blocks. His defense on Lopez was the best it's been all series, perhaps showing that while the Bulls are falling apart around him at least he's getting a bit stronger as the days have gone on. Lopez still wound up with 17 points, but it was on 7-18 shooting, with the center only grabbing 3 total rebounds in over 37 minutes. Noah wound up playing a Noah-esque 43 minutes. His 9 offensive rebounds led the Bulls in their team offensive rebound rate of 32.6%, a category they were dominated in by the Nets in Game 5.
Behind Noah, the Bulls had a high quality offense in the first half, and especially the first quarter with Marco Belinelli's 8 points and 5 assists. Though Nate Robinson would bring up the ball he was not asked to be a distributor on offense. Belinelli provided a different offensive dynamic than Deng, being able to run a lot of the pick and rolls, and contrary to Deng in these playoffs: hit a shot or three. Both starting guards (seriously...) had as good of a performance as you could ask for, both nearly playing the whole game and combining for 40 points. While they supplied the shooting, going 6-14 combined from three, Jimmy Butler was taking it inside on the Nets, as while he shot only 4-13 (and had more than a couple jump-passes when getting into trouble), his 8-9 from the free-throw line still had him finish with a nefficient 17 points on 13 shots.
But that first half also saw an obvious downside of missing Deng and Hinrich, and that was the defense. Whether it was Deron Williams penetrating on Robinson, or Gerald Wallace taking advantage of Belinelli, or some patented Joe Johnson isolation step-backs over Butler (Johnson had 10 points in the first quarter after calling himself a injury-riddled 'decoy' pre-game), the Nets were keeping the offensive pressure on the Bulls, winding up with a 60-point first half.
But Brooklyn was only up 6 at the end of those two quarters. Because the Bulls kept hanging in there, all game, and several times within 1 point in both halves. This was especially remarkable not only because of what the starting lineup had been re-made into, but that their bench gave them nothing. Taj Gibson had another chapter in what's been a really frustrating series for him, fouling out in under 18 minutes. Some of the calls were borderline, but Taj whines on every call so it's hard to know when to believe him. Players 7-8-9 in the rotation (Nazr Mohammed, Rip Hamilton's sarcophagus, Marquis Teague) played a combined ten minutes with four points. Perhaps feeding part of this overall feeling of desperation from the Bulls and Thibodeau was not being able to trust the deep bench to provide much more. When they were in the game, the unfamiliarity of the lineups were readily apparent with the increase in turnovers. Even Mohammed, who has provided some useful stints in this series, was seemingly only used because both Gibson and Boozer fouled out, the latter on his typical lazy back-shoving that he gets away with more often than not.
All this was going against the Bulls, and yet the second half was mostly tight the whole way through. It speaks to how hard the Bulls played and a bit to some Nets ineptitude we've seen so many times this season. (And: It's still worth giving thanks that this is actually the Eastern Conference's 4th seed) Both teams started out shooting extremely poorly in the second half. But even after getting the Bulls in early foul trouble, the Nets went into another massive swoon, missing 12 straight shots as a part of 7 scoreless minutes. Throughout it all, the Bulls could simply not get the game tied, getting the deficit to 1 at several points with chances to go ahead as well.
The Nets would wake up and close that 3rd quarter well, but between some poor shot selection and really awful foul shooting (starting the game 12-13 from the stripe, then going 10-20) they could not get a comfortable lead over the Bulls. Chicago had switched Jimmy Butler onto Deron Williams for much of the fourth, which allowed for some breakdowns elsewhere in the defense at times but did the job of forcing the ball out of Deron's hands. Williams had a really anemic 4th quarter stint, with just 3 points on free throws and missing his only shot which was a three point attempt. He had 2 assists but also 2 turnovers. It looked like while Thibodeau knew he couldn't go to that all game, he figured save it for the final quarter and it worked.
The Bulls weren't exactly lighting up in the fourth either, but had the lead down to 2 points at 3:45 remaining and again at 2:15. Amazingly, it was Andray Blatche who again delivered in the 4th for Brooklyn. Though he had a big game 5, Blatche's minutes were down on Thursday but he wound up being the reluctant go-to guy for the final 3 minutes. With the shot clock winding down and his team only up 2, Blatche made a really tough spin move and basket over Noah. Nate Robinson followed with a long two-pointer, and Blatche again found himself having the ball late in the shotclock (with teammates like Williams, Johnson, and Lopez), and he double-clutched and badly missed a jumper. He would later split the free throws after Boozer's 6th foul which allowed the Bulls to stay within one possession, but to his credit after the Bulls went inside for a quick two Blatche stepped up and hit a pair to make sure at best the Bulls could only go for the tie.
Yes, the Bulls had a chance to tie this game, after all they had been through in both guys being out and others not being able to make contributions. In that extended final possession, Belinelli missed a corner three that Noah tracked down but stepped out of bounds doing so. Noah then improbably forced a jump-ball as Williams was expecting an intentional foul...but Williams then actually beat Noah on the jump and the Nets retained possession, ending the game.
After all that, the Bulls had finally run out of gas. It was both inspirational that they kept the game so close, yet a little heartbreaking feeling that this could be all be a wasted final effort even if an elimination game remains. Throughout Thursday night, it did kind of look like the team that was playing for their playoff lives was the home team. We can only hope that their energy was spent only for a single night, and that this wasn't the Bulls last good attempt at taking this series. But if it was, the Bulls who could go gave it all they could when out there.