Bulls scratch and claw to Game 3 victory

Bulls scratch and claw to Game 3 victory
April 25, 2013, 10:00 pm
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It wasn’t quite a masterpiece, as the beginning and end left much to be desired, but the Bulls’ defense took things to another level Thursday night at the United Center, bouncing back from one of the team’s typically slow starts to absolutely smother the Nets, then hold on for a 79-76 win to take a 2-1 lead in the first round of the playoffs.

The forward tandem of Carlos Boozer and All-Star Luol Deng propelled the Bulls offensively with a pair of 20-and-10 games, but the real hero was the team’s first-half defensive effort, which stifled Brooklyn to historic proportions, before surviving a late push by the visitors, which ended with a missed game-tying attempt from an old acquaintance.

From the outset, Brooklyn was determined to play Game 3 at the same pace as the series opener, eschewing the Bulls’ grind-it-out tendencies to push the tempo, which yielded a 13-2 start, in favor of the visitors.

An aggressive Nets squad, aided by the presence, if not early production of Joe Johnson (15 points) — the former All-Star shooting guard was a game-time decision, due to a case of plantar fasciitis — was determined to play their preferred brand of basketball and instead of letting their hosts’ physical nature push them around, the guests adopted a strike-first mentality.

Buoyed by floor general Deron Williams (18 points), familiar with the confines from his days starring at the University of Illinois, the Nets had a stranglehold on the contest in the early going, but the Bulls gradually fought back, utilizing a 5-0 spurt to make it a competitive affair once again, as Duke products Boozer (22 points, 16 rebounds) and Deng (21 points, 10 rebounds) led the charge.

Led by their trademark stifling defense — they held the Nets scoreless over the final 6:25 of the first quarter — and scored 14 unanswered points to take a 19-17 lead after the opening period, inciting their loyalists and seemingly putting the visitors in a state of shock.

With the likes of Kirk Hinrich (12 points) and backup center Nazr Mohammed setting the tone — the latter replaced Noah in the previous frame and made an immediate impact, then drew a technical foul on Nets counterpart Andray Blatche for retaliating to a hard foul by the veteran — the Bulls maintained a slim cushion early in the second quarter.

Further inspired by the raucous crowd supporting them, the Bulls had control of the game’s momentum and after top reserve Taj Gibson’s posterizing dunk over Brooklyn backup Kris Humphries, it felt like the roof was going to come off of the arena and the hosts would run away with it, even at that early juncture and with the score still close.

A remarkable defensive effort, even for a ballyhooed unit like the Bulls, saw a completely discombobulated Brooklyn squad miss 25-of-26 shots, as the Bulls went on an extended 28-5 run and take a double-digit lead, as Boozer and Hinrich were the team’s offensive catalysts.

While the Nets eventually mustered up a bit of scoring before the period ended, at the intermission, the Bulls held a 41-34 advantage — largely due to Brooklyn’s 22.5 first-half shooting — despite a Gerald Wallace triple at the halftime buzzer.

Deng had it going early in the third quarter, hitting a trio of mid-range jumpers, followed by a three-pointer after making Wallace fall off the dribble and finally, a three-point play after converting a backdoor layup.

After Deng scored the Bulls’ first 12 points of the period, he ceded the team’s scoring reins to Boozer, who helped the hosts maintain their comfortable margin of separation, though the Nets began to score on a more consistent basis, thanks to Williams coming alive after being held in check since midway through the opening frame.

The Bulls’ defense generally remained stout, however, and with some increased breathing room, they were able to withstand cooling off on the offensive end as the quarter went on.

Heading into the final stanza, the hosts were ahead, 65-52, after Nate Robinson hit a jumper 5.7 seconds before the buzzer sounded.

Robinson and Deng started the fourth quarter on a positive note for the Bulls, but Brooklyn still hung around, as the likes of Johnson and All-Star center Brook Lopez (22 points, nine rebounds, seven blocked shots) kept the visitors from being counted out too soon.

In his hobbled condition, Joakim Noah (eight rebounds in 26 minutes) didn’t make an impact on the game as a scorer, but continued to affect the game as a rebounder, passer and defensive presence, all of which helped keep the Nets at bay.

Heading into the game’s stretch run, the Nets gradually fought their way back within striking distance, making it a 77-70 game on a Lopez layup with 2:59 remaining, resulting in a Bulls timeout, after which a failed possession led to a basket by Brooklyn reserve guard MarShon Brooks, cutting the deficit to five with two minutes to play.

There was a general feeling of concern throughout the evening, as it was perceived that the Bulls didn’t build a big enough lead when they had the opportunity earlier in the contest and seemed to be on the brink of being proved correct after a Lopez put-back dunk made it 77-74 with 14.4 seconds left.

Robinson was sent to the charity stripe with 10.7 seconds on the clock and split a pair of attempts to make it a two-possession game, which led to a uncontested Williams layup, then Noah, who was scoreless to that point of the game, being fouled with 4.4 seconds to go.

The ailing big man missed the first of two foul shots, then hit the second, prompting a Brooklyn timeout and subsequently, an off-the-mark corner triple from, of all people, former Bulls guard C.J. Watson, much to the fans’ delight.