Brooklyn in position to set up Game 7 at Barclays on Saturday
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
It's been more than 56 years since Brooklyn hosted the ultimate contest in major pro team sports: A Game 7.
With a victory Thursday night in Chicago, the Nets have an opportunity to provide our borough's ever-faithful, ever-longing sporting fanatics with a winner-take-all battle for the right to open the Eastern Conference semifinals against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat next Monday night in South Beach.
According to P.J. Carlesimo, the Nets' interim coach who guided the team to its first playoff appearance since 2007 after replacing Avery Johnson in late December. Brooklyn is poised and ready to post its first win in five visits to the Windy City this season.
"I really believe that both teams legitimately feel that they're better than the other team," Carlesimo said during Tuesday's media teleconference, one day after the Nets bravely staved off elimination with a 110-91 gut-check victory in Game 5 on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. "Both think they're capable of winning. It's not convincing anybody that they're better than the other team or that they can win. It's just, 'Let's go out and play the game and see what happens.' I think there's enough legitimate confidence on both sides to go around."
The Nets could set up an epic duel at the Barclays Center on Saturday night, marking the first Game 7 in Brooklyn since the Dodgers lost the finale of the 1956 World Series to the hated Yankees with a lopsided 9-0 defeat.
Of course, it was only one year earlier that 'Dem Bums finally got off the schneid against the dynastic Bronx Bombers as Johnny Podres blanked the Yanks for an historic 2-0 victory in Game 7 of the 1955 Fall Classic at "The House That Ruth Built".
Those Dodgers, anchored by the legendary likes of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Roy Campenella, had taken their share of lumps on the road to what turned out to be Brooklyn's one and only World Series championship before the franchise was shanghaied to La-La Land just two summers later.
These Nets, put together during a $330 million summer spending spree by general manager Billy King, are dipping their toes in the postseason water together for the very first time. And as evidenced by last Saturday's epic Game 4 collapse in Chicago, they still may have a lot to learn about playoff basketball.
But learning comes only with experience, and the Nets have certainly endured their share of ups and downs en route to Game 6, growing exponentially in the process. The only question is, can they force the Bulls to take one more Brooklyn-bound trip to O'Hare Airport on Thursday night?
"The teams that have been together and been through playoff situations and particularly the ones that have enjoyed success in the playoffs, that's just one more little plus for those teams going in," Carlesimo admitted.
"It doesn't ensure anything, but it's something you'd like to have," the 63-year-old coaching sage added. "And the only way you acquire it is by going through the process. How do you acquire experience? You go out and you do it. This is really beneficial for us. it's the only good thing about playing long series. Everybody would love a four-game series, but these are really good to go through as a learning experience and will serve us well hopefully not just this week going forward, but in the future."
The future appears to be now for Carlesimo, who isn't likely to return to his post if the Nets get bounced by the banged up Bulls, who have been without reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose for the entire season and were missing starting point guard Kirk Heinrich in Game 5. Add starting All-Star center Joakim Noah's injured right foot to the mix, and Chicago suddenly appears to be the team desperate for a victory.
"It's a must-win for us," intimated Bulls guard Nate Robinson, who broke Brooklyn's collective heart with an otherworldly 34-point effort in Chicago's triple-overtime come-from-behind win Saturday.
Having blown the Bulls away in Game 1, only to lose the next three games, including a 79-76 setback in Game 3 in Chicago that could have turned in their favor had C.J. Watson drilled a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Nets are now painfully aware of how swiftly a team can go from seemingly in control to the brink of elimination at this time of year.
That may prove to have been the most valuable lesson they learned during what owner Mikhail Prokhorov proclaimed was "just the beginning" of their postseason run prior to the series opener.
'Our back's against the wall right now,'' Brooklyn's Gerald Wallace noted. ''We're in a fighting spirit. We're a fighting team. We're not ready to go home. We feel like we're better than this team. We just let some games slip away so we feel like we're good enough and a better team that we can come back and win three games in a row just like they did.''
The Bulls, hobbled and visibly exhausted at the end of Game 5, don't appear to have the same snarl they possessed after humbling the Nets on the path to a 3-1 series lead. When word leaked out through a Chicago beat reporter during halftime of Game 4 that the Bulls wanted a first-round matchup with the Nets because they thought Brooklyn was "heartless and gutless", an already heated series got amped up to another level, regardless of Deron Williams' claim that his teammates weren't infuriated or affected by the slight.
Noah, a former star at Bay Ridge's Poly Prep High School, understands the importance of shaking off Chicago's brutal performance down the stretch in Game 5.
'I don't know,'' Noah admitted when asked if momentum in the series had shifted back in Brooklyn's favor. ''Every game is huge in the playoffs. You win, you feel great. Sky high. When you lose, you know you feel like (garbage). So it's on us to not take anything for granted and be ready for a big Game 6 at home.''
Dating to last year's lockout-shortened campaign, the Nets haven't won a game in Chicago since Feb. 18, 2012, but Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau isn't putting much stock in the Bulls' recent home success in the series.
''Home court is not going to win it for us,'' Thibodeau said. ''We're going to have to play well. So the important thing is, it's good to be home, we have good support there, but we've got to put the work into the game to give our fans something to cheer about. So we can't get it clouded. We have to get things corrected.''
Joe Johnson, who like Noah has been playing through plantar fasciatis, may best exemplify the grit and resolve Brooklyn has displayed in not going quietly against the more seasoned Bulls, who are in the midst of their fifth consecutive playoff run and eighth in nine years.
"Joe's not moving quite the way we're used to seeing Joe move, but he's playing big minutes," Carlesimo said. "He's given us enormous minutes and really good production. He's playing big minutes in an affected medical situation. He's handling it real well."
The six-time All-Star shooting guard drained a pair of clutch jumpers at the end of the first overtime in Game 4, giving the Nets some life following their epic collapse at the end of the regulation.
One of the best late-game threats in the NBA this season, Johnson, limping his way through 39 minutes in Game 5, was proof positive that Brooklyn still has plenty of bounce in its step as it prepares to bring the series home for what may just be the most memorable night of an unforgettable first season here.
To paraphrase former Knicks center Patrick Ewing, we'll see you Saturday night.
Hoop du Jour: G Hinrich, who suffered a bruised left calf in Game 4, was wearing a walking boot Tuesday and his status for Game 6 remains a game-time decision. ... G C.J. Watson, who was Derrick Rose's backup in Chicago before landing in Brooklyn, has an ongoing feud with Bulls G Robinson. The two tussled their way into the scorer's table in Game 4, drawing double technicals. Carlesimo addressed the heated one-on-one rivalry during Tuesday's teleconference. "They're both playing with a lot of emotion, and they're both playing very well," he said. "It seems to have had a positive impact on both of them, rather than have them try to do too much or get frustrated or let their emotions get the best of them. They both seem to be feeding off it in a positive way. I think C.J. is playing very, very well right now, as well as he's played at any point, but I don't want to minimize all the good games he's had during the regular season either." ... C Andray Blatche, who scored 10 of his 13 points during Brooklyn's game-turning fourth-quarter surge in Game 5, is dealing with a nagging left calf as Game 6 approaches. "(It's) sore, very sore," Carlesimo admitted. "I don't know if 'cramping up' is the right term, but I almost got him out at the timeout that was under three minutes, and then again after. (Athletic trainer Tim Walsh) was working on his calf during the timeouts. He was obviously affected, but he didn't want to come out and he was playing well, so we stayed with it." ... Though he's got his own wounded warriors to deal with, Carlesimo praised Noah for his ongoing tenacity on the court despite a severe foot injury. "He's one of those guys you've got to put a wood stake through his heart," he said of the former Blue Devil. "Whether he's hurt or he's limping or whatever, on the next play he's always apt to beat you. It wasn't 'Oh, look he's injured – let's go at him!' Not at all."