Brooklyn can draw on early-season experience for Game 3 in Chicago
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Nets' first two games against the Bulls in this best-of-7 first-round playoff series were a microcosm of the first two months of their historic debut season in our fair borough.
After jumping out of the gate with an 11-4 start in November, the Nets fell to 14-14 by late December as Deron Williams struggled to find his scoring touch and Avery Johnson was shown the door despite his lofty status as the league's reigning Coach of the Month.
With a near-flawless Game 1 effort at Barclays Center on Saturday night, the Nets appeared on their way to steamrolling the injury-plagued, shorthanded, slow-moving Bulls in their first playoff series since 2007. But buoyed by the efforts of a hobbled but game Joakim Noah, the Chi-Towners made Williams and the Nets look limp and lifeless for most of Game 2 en route to a series-tying victory.
So the biggest question for Brooklyn entering Game 3 Thursday night is which unit will show up at the always-raucous United Center?
The Nets found themselves at a similar crossroads just before the turn of the New Year.
Would they, in fact, turn this into a season to remember as Brooklyn celebrated the return of a major pro sports franchise, or would they revert to New Jersey form and squander a prime opportunity to establish themselves as legitimate NBA contenders?
We know the answer to that question.
With a 35-19 mark under Carlesimo since Johnson's firing, a franchise-record 23 road wins and its first playoff berth since 2007, Brooklyn announced its arrival as a force to be reckoned with on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
The best may yet be to come in the years ahead for Williams, Joe Johnson, All-Star center Brook Lopez and the rest of general manager Billy King's well-orchestrated, deep roster, but there is still a prime opportunity right in front of them as this series shifts to the Midwest.
It is one they will have to take full advantage of if Season One in Brooklyn isn't to be remembered for what could have been instead of what was as the Nets rolled to the second-most victories (49) in franchise history.
According to Carlesimo, his team isn't quite ready to roll into the fetal position and go silently into the offseason after the Bulls out-toughed and out-hustled them in Game 2.
"Our guys all year have not been excuse guys," insisted the interim coach during a media conference call Tuesday after giving his players a day off in advance of Thursday's showdown. "When we didn't play well or as well as we're capable of playing, we know it's on us. Deron sets the tone that way – if anything he's too hard on himself, but I'd much rather have that attitude. I think our guys all feel we let ourselves down [in Game 2] and we didn't play as well as we're capable of playing, even giving credit to the Bulls for having lot to do with that."
No one took more blame for Monday night's letdown before a sellout crowd at Barclays Center than Williams, who managed only eight points on 1-of-9 shooting after riddling the Bulls for 22 points on a 9-of-15 shooting effort with seven assists in an easy Game 1 win.
"I've got to do a better job of everything really. This was a bad one for me. I'm not going to play like this again," the $98 million point guard stated.
Able to outrun and outgun the Bulls in Game 1, the Nets found themselves in slow-down mode Monday night, having to fight tooth-and-nail for every scoring opportunity as Chicago's rugged defense was able to get back into position before Williams and company could beat them to the rack.
"When our guys feel they've got an advantage, they've got to finish and they've got to finish strong," Carlesimo said of the team's approach to Game 3.
"It's going to be physical, there's not going to be clean shots. It's not going to be easy: there will be bumps, be physicality. That line is not always an easy line to walk. We want our guys to be strong inside and not to look to get fouled, but be strong taking it to the basket and make the refs make a call. Sometimes it looks like they forced a shot, but you can't always get a good shot and can't just say, 'I'm wide open' or 'I'm not."
Obviously, the Nets can't afford to shoot 35 percent from the floor and 19 percent from 3-point range as they did in Game 2. And though the Bulls are renowned for their defensive prowess, especially along the interior, they did benefit from Brooklyn's inability to hit open shots throughout Monday night's contest.
That puts the onus on Joe Johnson (6-for-18 in Game 2) and Gerald Wallace (1-for-7) to cash in from deep when the defense doubles down on Williams, and collapses on Lopez (21 points in Game 2) in the paint. Johnson and Wallace combined to go 12-for-20 for 30 points in Game 1. but Johnson will be a game-time decision for Game 3 after a recurrence of the plantar fasciatis that slowed him down during the Nets' stretch run toward the playoffs.
Even if the Nets improve their outside shooting percentage in Game 3, this series will likely be dictated by their ability to make the most of their opportunities in the paint.
"We're both better half-court than full-court [teams], so this game figures to be like that, this series figures to be a lot about the paint and it can't not be physical inside," Carlesimo noted. "It's not about fouling, it's about protecting your space, it's about boxing out, it's about challenging guys when they come to the rim. Matching or exceeding their physicality is just a day of work when we're playing them. I think we would both agree that whichever team is able to be more physical (will win)."
Reggie Evans, the Nets' most physical player and the NBA's leader in rebounds-per-48-minutes this season, was virtually neutralized in Game 2 with eight rebounds, none of which came off the offensive glass. Evans ripped 13 boards in the series opener as the banged-up Bulls always appeared a step or two behind Brooklyn on both ends of the floor.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau isn't buying into his team's Game 2 mastery of the Nets, just as Carlesimo didn't get cocky after the Nets steamrolled Chicago in Game 1.
'The Nets are tough,'' Thibodeau said. ''They're a very well-balanced team, they play extremely hard, they play together, they have everything. They can break you down off the dribble, they can hurt you in the post, they rebound the ball, so we've got our work cut out for us.''
Brooklyn lost both of its visits to the Windy City during the regular season, but only needs a victory either Thursday night or during Saturday's Game 4 matinee to regain home-court advantage in the series. The Nets proved their mettle away from home by going 5-3 on a team record-tying eight-game, 17-day road trip in March.
"We're not uncomfortable playing on the road, and it's not like they're 36-5 or anything at home," said Carlesimo, noting Chicago's 24-17 home mark this season. "We've got to beat them. I like playing them at Barclays than playing them at the United Center, but I do think we're comfortable playing on the road. It's not going to be about the building – it's going to be about the guys in the white uniforms."
Brooklyn's Men in Black will have something to say about the outcome of this critical game as well, just as they did back during the holiday season when their historic first season was on the verge of a potential collapse.
While Carlesimo will have to wait to find out whether his interim status gets upgraded this offseason, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov appears ready and willing to put his faith in his general manager for the foreseeable future.
According to Yahoo Sports! on Thursday afternoon, the Nets and Billy King are finalizing a multi-year contract extension for the man who made sure Williams stayed right here in Brooklyn this past summer. King, who previously oversaw an Eastern Conference championship team in Philadelphia, helped orchestrate a drastic turnaround after the Nets missed the playoffs in each of their final five seasons in New Jersey.
Hoop du Jour: The Nets lost their previous two playoff games in Chicago in 1998 en route to a first-round sweep at the hands of Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Both games were close, however, as New Jersey fell 96-93 in Game 1 and 96-91 in Game 2. ... ''It's going to be a battle. We'll be ready, they'll be ready,." former Poly Prep star Noah said of Game 3. ... Reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who has been out since tearing his ACL in the opening round of last year's playoffs, has still not officially been ruled out of participating this postseason, though it would be shocking to see him on the court until next season. Despite losing his best player, and having Noah hampered by plantar fasciatis in his right foot, Thibodeau refuses to address injury concerns. "I don't want to use the injury thing as an excuse," he said. "We have enough here to get it done." ... C Lopez is following his first career All-Star campaign with a smashing playoff debut. The 7-foot Stanford center has scored 21 points in each of his first two postseason games, also grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking six shots and hitting all but one of his 15 free-throw attempts