A playoff game breaks out, and Nets aren’t ready for it

P.J. Carlesimo. (Howard Megdal)
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In the end, the Nets lost to the Bulls, 92-90, in a game that they were supposed to win going away.

The Bulls, who are currently in a three-way battle with the Nets and Hawks for the fourth seed in their conference, were playing short-handed: the roster was missing Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Richard Hamilton, Marco Bellinelli and franchise star Derrick Rose, due to injuries. In recent games, the Bulls had lost to the Washington Wizards, and narrowly beat the Detroit Pistons, a pair of teams finishing well out of the playoff mix.

And the Nets, off of a successful 5-3 road trip, came out with the clear intention of ending this one early. Brook Lopez was unstoppable in the first quarter, with 18 points collected on a series of drives to the basket and open jumpers with the space created by his drives. Deron Williams, finally playing at the level he'd routinely reached with the Utah Jazz, had six assists in the first quarter alone. The Nets sprinted out to an 18-4 lead, and held a 26-13 edge after one quarter. 

A sellout crowd in Brooklyn didn't even wait until halftime to leave their seats in pursuit of Nets gear or the bathrooms or, perhaps, Junior's Cheesecake, leaving large gaps of empty rows by the second quarter. The Nets, too, began to play like they'd gone on break early, while the Bulls outworked them on the boards and seemed to find, in Carlos Boozer, someone capable of providing offense. Still, the Nets led 47-36 at halftime, and no one seemed to think anything of the second-quarter effort.

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The arena was still quite empty as the third quarter began, and the Nets, with the exception of Deron Williams, played like it. The Bulls played hard, though. A 16-5 rebounding edge in the third quarter tells only part of the story: as Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo pointed out after the game, defensive effort is often a precursor to rebounds, putting players in better position to grab them.

Williams was his renewed, brilliant self, with 11 points in the quarter. But Boozer kept pace, scoring 10 points and adding seven rebounds in the third quarter alone, while open threes from Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler helped narrow the gap. A Butler three off a pass from Boozer actually tied the game at 65 with three seconds left in the period.

By now, the crowd had largely returned, sated with food or souvenir, and collectively seemed shocked, while small pockets of Bulls' faithful cheered with undisguised surprise. Could the Nets possibly lose this one?

The Bulls continued their intensity in the fourth. This group, even injured, seemed to realize a game they had no business winning was within their grasp. The defensive intensity only increased, while the Bulls shared the ball artfully on offense.

Williams, for his part, kept right on playing at the same high level. And his backcourt mate Joe Johnson, back from a pair of injuries that had kept him out for the previous five games, found his shot in the third quarter. The pair scored 18 points, with Williams' three assists finding Johnson, and the two commiting a total of one turnover. 

Williams, in particular, rose to the moment late in the fourth, repeatedly making plays, including a one-handed dunk attempt through the lane with the Nets down 84-81 that indicated an athleticism he simply hadn't had, thanks to his ailing ankles, for most of the season.

Williams and Johnson both have playoff experience, Williams with the Jazz, Johnson with the Atlanta Hawks. Lopez, and many of the other key Nets, don't.

That the two ball handlers would be so careful, yet the Nets managed to commit eight turnovers as a team in the fourth quarter alone, is astonishing to consider. Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo physically recoiled when he inquired at the postgame presser about how many turnovers the Nets committed in the fourth, and heard the answer.

"I thought turnovers were bad," Carlesimo said incredulously. "I didn't think it was eight. Eight; you're not going to win too many games, particularly against a good team, with eight turnovers."

Even so, the Nets had multiple opportunities to win this game. And Lopez, who has been the team's best player for most of the season, and who'd dominated early, was ultimately responsible for failing in those late opportunities.

With 32 seconds left, and the Nets ahead 90-89, Williams found Lopez about fifteen feet from the basket; a Bulls double-team seemed to fluster Lopez, and he turned the ball over with a pass to the Bulls' Nate Robinson. Then Robinson, the 5'9" former Knicks' guard, hit a jumper, somehow, over the 7' Lopez. The Nets, now down one, came back to Lopez, who missed a layup despite minimal contact. The Bulls made one of two free throws, leaving the Nets one final try; Williams penetrated, drew the defense, kicked to Lopez 17 feet from the basket, the kind of open shot Lopez kept hitting in the first quarter.

This one rimmed out. The crowd didn't react in typical home loss fashion, with a disappointed groan or scattered boos. It was more of a collective gasp. No one could believe the Nets had lost this one, not with that lead, or with that undermanned opponent.

When reporters entered the Nets' locker room, Lopez was a study in despondency, slumped in a chair at his locker, a gray and white checked shirt tucked into his blue jeans, looking at his phone. He beckoned us over.

"It’s tough, just because our team was playing so well through the majority of the game and I contributed a lot to how the final score ended up," said Lopez about the game. "And that’s definitely not something I’m happy with or proud of."

It might actually be a blessing if the Nets can find a way to finish behind the Bulls and Hawks; the sixth seed carries with it a first-round road series, but also the ability to avoid the Miami Heat until the conference finals.

But to get there against anybody, the Nets cannot play as they did, Williams and in the fourth Johnson aside, Thursday night. Home, road, opponent won't matter. They were at home Thursday night, and the Bulls had half a team. The level of play, defensively, on the boards, and late-game offensive execution by Lopez, wasn't playoff-ready.

"I guess I can be thankful it happened in the regular season,” Lopez said of his late-game problems. “It wasn’t the postseason."

A reporter patted Lopez sympathetically on the arm as the group moved on to the next player. Lopez sat slumped for several more minutes afterwards, checking his phone and taking long drinks from a black water bottle. There was nothing else to say, really.

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