Deng: We gave ourselves a chance to win the game
BROOKLYN — Undermanned or not, nothing less than a valiant effort was expected from the Bulls (28-18) when they faced the Nets (28-19) at the Barclays Center, but ultimately, they simply didn’t have enough, falling, 93-89, Friday evening.
Posed with size mismatches and tired legs — four players played over 40 minutes on the evening, including Brooklyn native Taj Gibson, who played the entire contest — the visitors came close, making a push up until the game’s final buzzer, but fell short in the end.
Playing without three starters — Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich were out with hamstring, foot and elbow injuries, respectively — the Bulls began the contest on the wrong end of a 6-0 run.
The Nets built a cushion behind the play of point guard Deron Williams (11 points, six assists), who enjoyed a size advantage over fill-in Bulls starter Nate Robinson (12 points, 11 assists), who experienced some early ball-security issues, something unsurprising when considering the aforementioned absences.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau opted to go with a small-ball lineup — Robinson, Gibson (16 points, nine rebounds) at center and three wings: All-Star Luol Deng (18 points, six rebounds) and reserves Jimmy Butler (12 points, six rebounds) and Marco Belinelli (18 points, four assists) — as the opening period waned on, though the maneuver didn’t prevent his team from digging themselves a double-digit hole.
Largely due to their poor shooting — 27.8 percent in the frame — the Bulls trailed, 24-14 — Deng’s proficiency at getting to the foul line ensured that it wasn’t worse — after a quarter of play.
An improved defensive effort at the outset of the second period led to the Bulls slicing into the deficit.
Utilizing Belinelli at the point with rookie Marquis Teague off the ball, the Bulls gradually crept up on their hosts, as Belinelli functioned as the team’s primary ballhandler and split scoring duties with Deng.
Buoyed by an added offensive boost from the energetic Gibson, back in his hometown, the Bulls eventually tied the game at 35 apiece with 3:29 remaining in the half.
The game remained a close-knit affair and the visitors eventually took their first lead of the evening on a Deng three with less than a minute to go in the period — adding insult to injury for the Nets, Williams injured his ankle on the play and subsequently limped to the locker room — resulting in a 42-41 Bulls lead at the intermission.
After the break, Williams returned to Brooklyn’s lineup and Butler replaced Mohammed for the Bulls, but more significant was Gibson, faced with a size disadvantage against Lopez (20 points), an All-Star, continuing his positive trend by throwing down back-to-back dunks to open the third quarter.
Despite facing a serious deficit on the glass, the smallish visitors seemed to be getting under their hosts’ skin, as Rip Hamilton, who also got going on offense, drew a technical foul on Gerald Wallace and Gibson jostled under the basket with Reggie Evans.
The tables briefly turned as Thibodeau and Hamilton were hit with back-to-back technical fouls, minimizing the slim cushion the Bulls built, and the Nets eventually regained both the lead and the game’s momentum.
But the Bulls fought back behind Robinson’s playmaking and the scoring of Belinelli, Butler and Deng — the latter, who along with Gibson, had played the entire contest, took a hard fall and left the game with 3.8 seconds to go in the quarter, though he returned to start the fourth period — and heading into the final stanza, the Bulls held a 67-63 advantage.
Nets guard MarShon Brooks (13 points) singlehandedly snatched the lead at the outset of the fourth quarter with five consecutive points, leading to a Thibodeau timeout, though the hosts’ run extended to 7-0 before the visitors snapped it by running off four straight points of their own to regain control of the contest.
Brooks’ virtuoso scoring performance resumed and Brooklyn went on to create a bit of separation from its guests, who seemingly grew tired, as Thibodeau shortened his rotation to virtually five players — Hamilton appeared to have reached his minutes limits, Mohammed didn’t play in the second half and Teague was a situational substitute — including Deng and Gibson, both of whom played nearly the entire contest.
But just when it looked like the Nets would be able to close things out, the Bulls made a push as the game entered its stretch run, making it a one-possession game on a Robinson layup with 2:57 left in the game.
The visitors continued to challenge their hosts by knocking down clutch buckets, but Brooklyn consistently responded, but after splitting a pair of foul shots, Deng got a steal and subsequent layup with 15.9 seconds remaining to cut it to 91-89 in the Nets’ favor, prompting a timeout by the hosts.
C.J. Watson was fouled with 11 seconds on the clock and despite the attempts of his former teammates to ice him at the charity stripe, the former Bulls backup point guard knocked down both of his attempts.
After a timeout, Deng shot a triple, which was on target, but fell short and after the Nets secured the rebound with five seconds remaining, it sealed the deal.