This Bulls season has been a wacky one, filled with breathless updates of an inactive Derrick Rose that haven’t really updated the situation; game-winning shots and groan-inducing turnovers; and the unique non-stop energy that is Nate Robinson.
Given all that, it seems only fitting that it now will feature a make-or-break Game 7 in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The Nets forced that scenario with a 95-92 victory Thursday night at the United Center. They took advantage of a depleted Bulls roster that had Rose and Kirk Hinrich in street clothes, Robinson vomiting on the bench, Taj Gibson also playing through illness until he fouled out and Luol Deng at home with a severe viral infection.
United Center ballboys should file for battle pay.
The Nets had five players in double figures, with Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson sharing team honors with 17 points apiece and Gerald Wallace chipping in with 15. Williams had 1 assists.
All five Bulls starters finished in double figures. Marco Belinelli led the way with 22 and seven assists while Joakim Noah had 14 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.
This marked the first time in Nets’ franchise history they won an elimination game to force a Game 7.
In 12 previous instances, the Bulls never have lost a playoff series in which they led 3-1. The only time they have lost a series when leading 3-2 came when the Warriors, en route to the 1975 NBA title, prevailed in the Western Conference finals.
“You have to be mentally tough when you face adversity,” coach Tom Thibodeau said beforehand. “We talk about that all the time. We have to respond to the challenge. We’re more than capable. And we have to put the sweat into it.”
The loss of Deng and Hinrich made it an offensive game for the first half with the Nets reaching 60 points by the break. That’s a pace and a style at which the Nets are superior to the Bulls.
But the pace slowed considerably in the third quarter despite the Bulls losing Carlos Boozer to foul trouble on top of everything else. Belinelli, big all night jazzed the sellout crowd by sinking a 3-pointer and screaming in celebration at the Nets’ bench.
Every time the Nets appeared to pull away, the Bulls responded. C.J. Watson’s 3-pointer just more than midway through the fourth gave them an eight-point lead but Robinson memorably crossed over Kris Humphries
Both teams came out on fire, trading baskets in a first quarter in which the Bulls shot 59 percent and the Nets connected at 65 percent. Belinelli established himself with eight first-quarter points, playing the entire period.
In the second, the roster attrition forced one stretch where Richard Hamilton, Marquis Teague, Nazr Mohammed, Jimmy Butler and Gibson took the floor together. Robinson fouled Williams for a four-point play and eight-point lead with 1:27 left in the half.
“I don’t think you ever get used to it,” Butler said of playing without so many players. “But when you have guys down, you’re still going to go win games. Even if we’re short-handed, we’re expected to win.”
If the Bulls want their season to continue, they have to win Game 7, no matter who they have available.
“That’s the challenge of the NBA,” Thibodeau said. “We have got a great group of guys. They have been hit hard all year. They’re responded to every challenge.”
The biggest one yet is coming on Saturday.