The United Center was buzzing Wednesday for a national TV showdown between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. The game lived up to the hype for about two and a half quarters, and then the Nets ran the Bulls off the court the rest of the way in an ugly 138-112 defeat for the home team. This game was actually tied at 71-71 with 8:41 to play in the third quarter, only for the Nets to lead by as many as 38 points in the fourth quarter. There was even a 22-0 run in there as things got truly embarrassing, with the visitors badly outhustling the home team all over their own court.
It was a minor miracle the Bulls had that game tied in the third quarter. The Nets had their Big Three together for just the second time this season, and while Kyrie Irving was pretty quiet, Kevin Durant and James Harden were decidedly not. KD and Harden sliced and diced the Bulls all night, with Chicago’s leaky defense getting exposed again with multiple key guys out. It certainly didn’t help that Derrick Jones Jr. went down in the opening minute with a nasty knee injury, resulting in a whole lot of Alfonzo McKinnie.
Needless to say, that didn’t go well.
Durant led the way with an easy 27 points on 7-of-10 shooting. KD just missed a double-double with nine dimes. Harden got his double-double with 25 points, 16 assists and seven rebounds. The All-Star duo also got plenty of free points at the line, combining for 18-of-19 from the charity stripe as the Bulls committed a number of stupid fouls.
Harden looking like the MVP version of himself was a major difference in this game compared to the prior two Bulls wins in this series. And while Irving was quiet with just nine points on 4-of-10 shooting, the threat of him still makes a difference.
The Nets also got big performances from Patty Mills (21 points off the bench and way too many open 3-pointers) and Day’Ron Sharpe (20 points and the beneficiary of plenty of pick-and-roll buckets) as the team shot 56.3% from the field and 17-of-32 from 3-point range. While some of this was just impressive shotmaking from an elite team in a buzzsaw performance, there was also plenty of bad defense and a distinct lack of execution on that end that has been plaguing the Bulls for a while now. It’s certainly hard to beat a team as talented as the Nets with so much wing defense out, but giving up these kinds of numbers is still a real rough look and the continuation of a trend. It also provided a look at just how tough it will be to beat this Nets squad when it matters and they’re locked in.
The Bulls’ offense was able to keep pace in this one for a bit. Zach LaVine had a big second quarter to finish the first half with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting, while DeMar DeRozan had 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting in the opening half. Chicago shot 52.4% from the field in the first half and trailed by just two at the break, setting up what was hopefully going to be a frenetic finish.
But the third quarter was just a disaster on all fronts. The Nets outscored the Bulls 39-19 in the frame by making 12-of-18 shots overall, 5-of-9 from 3 and 10-of-11 from the foul line while not turning the ball over once. Chicago’s offense totally fell apart, going 7-of-23 from the field and 1-of-9 from 3-point range with six turnovers. Those miscues turned into 11 Nets points. The Bulls had 17 turnovers for the game, resulting in 28 Nets points. Brooklyn only had 10 turnovers. Not surprisingly, the visitors dominated in fast-break points, 19-9. That’s a big problem for the Bulls when they don’t turn teams over and get out running.
LaVine only wound up with 22 points after the hot first half, and DeRozan had just 19. Coby White (16 points) and Nikola Vucevic (14 points in a blah game) were the only other two Bulls in double figures.
Ultimately, I wasn’t all that surprised by a loss in this game on the second of a back-to-back while missing so many wing defenders, especially once Jones went down. But it was a shock to see the Bulls get blitzed again in another national TV appearance, similar to what happened against the Warriors earlier this season.
Those Warriors are up next on the schedule at the United Center on Friday, and it will be an opportunity for the Bulls to bounce back and make a statement of their own. The Dubs will be playing Thursday against the Bucks and then won’t have Draymond Green or Klay Thompson on Friday, so it will be a game the Bulls should have an advantage in, even with some of their key absences (Alex Caruso still isn’t expected back). How they respond to this humbling loss will be telling.
The Bulls are now 27-12 and lead the Nets by 1.5 games.