NBA Watch: Chicago Survives Brooklyn in Duel of Beasts of the East
NEW YORK - The Brooklyn Nets, playing the second of a back-to-back and the last of a four-game home stand at Barclays Center before they depart on a five-day road trip, faced off against the Chicago Bulls Saturday night in a tussle between the two top teams in the Eastern Conference standings.
“The East is deep,” said Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash before the game. “Every night it seems like it's a battle. I think it’s good for the balance of the league and for depth and parity after it feels like since the 90’s we haven’t seen that. It’s been exciting to see such a competitive Eastern Conference so far.”
Having just survived a stubborn Minnesota Timberwolves squad the night before, Coach Nash’s boys hoped to ride the momentum of their previous night’s 110-105 win into Saturday night.
“It just takes a lot of mental toughness. Hopefully we can find a way to put in two good performances in a back-to-back, not kind of run out of gas in the second one or not be as sharp in the second one,” the first-year coach said before tip-off.
There hasn’t been this much excitement about the Chicago Bulls in a while. The new-look Windy City squad, which acquired several key pieces over the off-season, seems to be clicking early on.
“They have two great playmakers in Lavine and Derozan and they’re extremely tough physical defenders,” shared Nash. “They got a lot of guys that can handle the ball and I think the most important thing is that they have a great spirit. Like the top teams in our league, they seem to all play for one another and there’s a certain clarity to their group that they’re trying to do this together and I think that really helps them.”
Zach Lavine has been the guy for the Bulls for the past handful of seasons and this year, he finally gets the much-needed support and veteran leadership from DeMar Derozan as well as other new acquisitions like Lonzo Ball and fan-favorite Alex Caruso.
“It’s Derozan and Lavine that really do all the handling but obviously Ball and Caruso are good spot up shooters and tough defenders who can also make plays so it adds to the levels of the depth of defending, playmaking, shotmaking, athleticism,” added Nash. “It’s a really good team.”
Brooklyn started the game off hot with three triples going on a 9-0 run that forced Chicago to call an early timeout at the 9:38 mark of the opening quarter. The Nets’ DeAndre’ Bembry shot perfect from the field pouring in eight points including two from downtown. The Brooklyn bench also did a better job getting on the Jumbotron with nine points in contrast to just three from the Bulls'. Two triples by Caruso helped throw cold water on the home team’s fiery start but he would suffer a strained right hamstring shortly after and would not return after leaving the game in the opening quarter, which concluded with the Nets ahead, 34-28.
After playing catch-up since the first quarter with Brooklyn leading by as much as nine, a Nikola Vucevic trey tied the game for the first time at 42-all with 2:31 before the half. The Nets dominated the boards with Bruce Brown hauling down 11 of his team’s 32 as opposed to just 22 by the Chicago side. The Nets also led the first half in points in the paint (24-12) and second-chance points (15-0) as the Brooklyn bench continued to outplay its Chicago counterparts.
At halftime, Brooklyn was ahead 56-52 with Kevin Durant and Paul Millsap leading the Nets campaign with 12 and 11 points, while James Harden and LaMarcus Aldridge chipped in a combined 18. Derozan, Lavine and Vucevic paced Chicago with 12, 11 and 9 respectively.
"Blame me" - Harden
Both teams played pretty even in the third quarter with the Bulls just up by a single point in terms of scoring output. A Lavine 3-pointer with 4.9 left in the quarter cut the Bulls lead to just a solitary point, but there was enough time remaining on the clock for Millsap to race down the court for a buzzer-beating layup to end the period with the Nets ahead, 82-79.
Hustle plays by Chicago rookie Ayo Dosunmu in the second half, especially on the defensive end, made an intangible difference in the Bulls regaining the lead midway in the final quarter. Aldridge continued to flex his muscle in the shaded area scoring a couple of baskets to keep the Nets within striking distance, including a putback at the 6:11 mark that put his team within just two, 92-90.
Big plays from Derozan and Lavine helped give Chicago a comfortable lead but the battle would go beyond the arc in the final minute with Durant sinking a three with just 39 seconds to put the Nets within three points of the Chicago advantage, but Lonzo Ball would answer back with a clutch triple from right quarter court with 16.9 to further the Bulls’ lead to 110-105. Despite dominating down low throughout the game and outscoring the Bulls 54-38 in the paint, Chicago fought back from being down by 11 at one point to come out with the 111-107 win.
Harden shot just 5/21 from the field and took accountability for his poor shooting night at the post-game presscon.
“Blame this one on me,” said The Beard. “I had a lot of opportunities at the rim that I didn’t convert that could’ve settled this game down. We had a lot of opportunities at the rim that we just didn’t convert that would’ve made the game a lot easier for us.”
Paul Millsap, who probably played the best game he’s had in a Nets uniform, quickly came to the aid of his teammate. “At the end of the day it’s a team sport and we all take credit for that and we all can get better. We got to continue building each other up and help him through those stretches and hopefully, vice versa.”
Coach Nash also gave Millsap props for his 13 points and seven rebounds showing. “He was great. He did a little bit of everything. He scored the ball. He was able to initiate some offense. He got some offensive rebounds, got some steals, just did a bit of everything and his intensity was great. And I thought his impact on the game was really good.”
Apart from Brooklyn’s lapses that night, Kevin Durant also gave Chicago’s stars credit for the game’s outcome. “We didn’t take advantage of being up nine or 10 points and we let them stay in the game when we were supposed to bury them,” the 2014 NBA MVP said. “That’s what happens when you got elite scorers like Lavine and Derozan who can make something out of nothing and make shots in the fourth when we didn’t capitalize on having the lead.”
Despite the loss, Coach Steve Nash had a more positive outlook post-game. “Obviously, Demar controlled the game down the stretch, made some big plays, so we probably had to be a little better on him down the stretch,” Nash said. “That’s a good team that’s played very well this season and it’s a great opportunity for us to get better and grow as a team and play in tight games against good quality opposition.”
The Brooklyn Nets mentor added, “I’m proud of the guys’ effort back-to-back. Like I said, we attacked the paint, did a lot of things that we asked them to do, the ball just didn’t bounce for us tonight.”
The Nets are still at number one in the Eastern Conference standings with a 16-7 record and the Bulls improve to 16-8, just half a game behind. Next up for Brooklyn are the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night (7:30pm ET) while Chicago hosts the Denver Nuggets Monday (8:00pm ET).
Mikko Abello is Esquire Philippines' special NBA correspondent.