NEW YORK--Even for the Bulls, who are used to being in this type of scenario, this was a bit extreme.
Without five of their core players-Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton and now Taj Gibson-they headed into the Barclays Center a wounded bunch against the Nets, a potential first-round playoff opponent. And in the first quarter, they played like the undermanned group they currently are.
In the second quarter, they fought just to keep it respectable, but still, it seemed as if the visitors would only be able to not embarrass themselves, but not truly challenge a Brooklyn team that had two of its stars, point guard Deron Williams and All-Star center Brook Lopez, rolling.
But after the intermission, a familiar pattern emerged, as the Bulls gradually crept up on their hosts, closed the gap and seized the momentum, making it a real ballgame heading down the stretch.
Regarding the team's approach at halftime, Jimmy Butler, who had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, recounted: "Something's got to change. We know it's us and it's not them. Even if they're making every shot, it's normally because we're not being aggressive on defense. It's always something that we can do better and coming into halftime, we knew what that was. It was to be aggressive and get into them on the defensive end, and make everything tough for them. I feel like they got wherever they wanted with the ball, passing and off the dribble, and we knew in the second half, we had to cut that out."
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau chimed in: "The second quarter was much better. I thought our intensity picked up. We were so soft defensively and low energy on offense, and that's a tough combination, but the good thing was changing it and we had a lot of guys step up and do a good job."
From Butler's defense on Nets backcourt standouts Williams and Joe Johnson and veteran center Nazr Mohammed's adjustments against Lopez, to Carlos Boozer's absolutely dominant evening, All-Star Luol Deng's typically steady play and Nate Robinson's clutch go, it was one of those gutsy nights that have endeared the Bulls to not only their own fans, but across the NBA in recent years.
"You guys see the mark of our team. we fight until the end. We've got some resilient guys in here," said Boozer, who had a team-high 29 points, to go along with a game-high 18 rebounds. "At the half, we just told each other, 'Keep grinding, keep playing hard. Something's going to break, going to go our way,' and then the momentum switched, man.
"Personally, I just felt the momentum going our way and then the fourth quarter was amazing, back and forth a little bit," he continued. "We just kept fighting. We just kept playing through it."
Kirk Hinrich, who chipped in with 10 points before fouling out, added: "We just found a way tonight. We got off to a bad start, we didn't have a lot of energy. Second half is where we came out and did a much better job. It's a big win."
Beating a fellow Eastern Conference playoff team in their present state is certainly a positive for the Bulls' morale moving forward, especially as they continue to jockey for postseason positioning, while simultaneously hoping to get back some of their injured players.
"We've had guys out all year. We've had similar games like this, this year," Hinrich said. "We were able to steal it."
Robinson concurred: "Guys go down, the reserves have to step up and step in, do whatever it takes to get the job done and we've been doing that all season."
"For us, it's big. Kirk fouled out. We've got Marco out, Rip out, D-Rose out, Taj out. Guys are just stepping up, man. That's what teams do. You've got Jo out, Naz stepping in for him, so each guy is coming in and it's like old-school wrestling: tag team," he went on to say. "We've just got to keep playing and if we keep doing that, I think we'll be okay."
Mohammed went as far to say that the win could be anecdotal motivation down the line.
[RELATED: Thibodeau: Rose 'close,' not ready to return]
"It's great for confidence, it's great to have something to look back on and say, 'Okay, we did it. We came from behind, we were in the same situation,' but there's also bad losses that put you right back in your place, so you can't get too high off a win like this," he explained. "You've got to be happy about it, put it in the memory bank and when you're in that situation again, you can say in the huddle, 'Hey, remember when we were down against Brooklyn?' We can fight through this.'"
But as one could predict, Thibodeau is already past this win and thinking about the next game on the schedule.
"For us, going home, we've got to be ready for Orlando. The games, they come fast. Orlando's dangerous, they can score. If we ease into that game, we'll have problems. We have to be right and ready when that ball goes up. When you start looking ahead or looking behind, you lose sight of what's in front of you and then you're not going to play with the intensity you need to play with," he said. "They're a very good team, but we're not going to pat ourselves on the back because I think we have to make the necessary corrections to improve and we have to look at the way we started the game, and we've got to get that corrected, so I don't think we want to feel good about ourselves. We want to understand what happened and learn from it and move forward, and again, playing our best down the stretch and being as healthy as possible, that's what we're striving for."