NEW YORK — The criticism flew fast and furious, the obituaries started to take shape and the Bulls reacted the way they often do when faced with adversity.
They looked inward. They challenged themselves to play with more intensity and aggressiveness. And they didn’t just circle the wagons; they walled off the lane.
Swarming and double-teaming Deron Williams at virtually every opportunity, the vaunted Bulls defense returned. So did a competitive series after the Bulls downed the Nets 90-82 Monday night at the Barclays Center to even the best-of-seven affair before Thursday’s Game 3 at the United Center.
The Luol Deng impostor who got dominated by Gerald Wallace in the opener disappeared, replaced by a more aggressive version who scored 15 points. Joakim Noah again battled his way through plantar fasciitis, contributing 11 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes and dropping the exclamation point with a driving layup for an eight-point lead with 1 minute, 58 seconds left.
Nazr Mohammed, after playing just six minutes in Game 1, came off the bench to deliver timely jumpers and physical defense in 18 minutes. And Carlos Boozer’s metronomic consistency offered a double-double of 13 points and 12 rebounds.
“We’re a team with great character,” Noah said. “Every time we hit adversity, we’ve responded pretty well.”
After repeatedly beating the Bulls in pick-and-roll situations in Game 1, Williams didn’t make his first and only field goal until the 6:35 mark of the third quarter and finished with eight points and 10 assists while missing eight of nine shots.
The Nets shot 35.4 percent overall and managed just 30 points in the paint after posting 56 in Game 1.
“I thought Jo was great all around,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He started off the game and helped set the tone. I thought overall Jo was very rusty in the first game, but he willed it again tonight. We needed every bit of it.
“It was hard to settle on the rotation and see what groups are working. Their size up front and rebounding are a concern. With Jo’s minutes restriction, you have to find that balance. Nazr has done a great job for us in the second half of the season. He had timely baskets, size at the rim tonight.”
The Nets trailed by as many as 12 but pulled within 82-78 before Deng calmly dropped a 19-foot jumper with 2:50 left.
Noah came up big in the fourth quarter with nine points. He had played just 13:27 in Game 1, but Thibodeau said beforehand the center’s minutes limit was increased to 20-25.
“Um, everything,” Noah said, when asked for his treatment plan. “Just a lot of ice, stretching, massage, acupuncture. You name it.”
The Bulls’ adjustments stared early, with Thibodeau using Mohammed for more size and not playing Taj Gibson at all until the second quarter.
The Bulls never trailed in the first half but led only 47-46 at halftime when C.J. Watson beat the halftime buzzer with a 3-pointer in transition.
Then came the third quarter, when Nets assistant coach Popeye Jones drew a technical foul, indicative of how badly the period went. The Bulls defense forced 17 misses on 19 shots and created breathing room with a 7-0 run that featured Boozer’s three-point play, a Mohammed jumper and was capped by Jimmy Butler’s dunk.
“We were disappointed obviously in the way we played in Game 1,” Thibodeau said. “We know we have to play better. We can’t allow missed shots to take our energy away from our defense and rebounding.”
Mission accomplished on Monday.