Thursday night's Game 6 featured two sidelined point guards, another who vomited during timeouts, an All-Star who left the arena before the game even started and plenty of thrilling moments. Ultimately it resulted in a Bulls loss, the second straight in which they had an opportunity to extend their season and get some much-needed rest before the second round of the playoffs, where the defending-champion Heat loom.
A valiant Bulls effort against the Nets symbolized their season-long battle with various maladies and although they raised the spirits of the United Center crowd with a gutsy effort all evening, at the end of the contest the Bulls were unable to catch the Nets in a 95-92 loss, setting up a Game 7 showdown in Brooklyn.
An inspired Bulls team, even more undermanned than usual -- in addition to Kirk Hinrich missing the contest with a calf injury, Luol Deng was sent home prior to the game due a severe illness. Meanwhile top reserve Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson (18 points), Hinrich’s replacement, had flu-like symptoms -- started the contest with tremendous effort, given their difficult situation.
Big men Carlos Boozer (14 points, 13 rebounds) and All-Star Joakim Noah (14 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, five blocked shots) were effective right out of the gate and Marco Belinelli (22 points, seven assists, five rebounds), starting in place of Deng, was also a catalystmas both a scorer and playmaker.
The Nets, however, weren’t prepared to roll over and with Joe Johnson (17 points) knocking down outside shots, it was a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair (the hosts shot 59.1 percent from the floor, while the visitors notched an even gaudier 65 percent field-goal percentage) in the early going, which also saw the return to action of veteran Rip Hamilton.
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Brooklyn, which also received solid interior play from All-Star center Brook Lopez (17 points), eventually built a slim cushion and at the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls trailed, 33-27.
Rookie point guard Marquis Teague started the second quarter and while he immediately made an impact by making a steal and scoring a quick two, things quickly went downhill as the Nets extended their advantage, prompting a Bulls timeout.
As for the team’s two remaining sick players who were cleared to participate, Gibson was an active presence, but was saddled with foul trouble, while Robinson started slowly before heating up with back-to-back three-pointers, riling up an already raucous home crowd.
Propelled by the scoring of Robinson and Jimmy Butler (17 points, seven rebounds, six assists), the hosts gradually narrowed the gap, but Brooklyn’s backcourt combination of Johnson and Deron Williams (17 points, 11 assists), who blended both scoring and playmaking, again gave the visitors some breathing room.
The visitors’ lead further ballooned as the first half came to a close and at the intermission, the Bulls faced a 60-54 deficit.
After the break, big plays -- like a Robinson triple to open third-quarter scoring, a monstrous Boozer dunk and hard screen on Gerald Wallace (15 points) which laid out the Nets veteran -- excited the Bulls loyalists, but didn’t make do much in trimming the guests’ advantage.
Wallace, who bounced back from a regular-season slump and even first-round struggles, was effective for Brooklyn and with Boozer picking up his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter, the Bulls were losing some of their momentum which was based more on being scrappy than precise execution.
But they continued to persevere, cutting the deficit to a single point with just over four minutes remaining in the period as the energetic play of Noah and Gibson inside, as well as Belinelli’s scoring, put the visitors on their heels.
The Bulls were unable to overtake their guests, but heading into the final stanza, things were as close as they could rightfully expect in their present physical condition, being behind by only four points, 75-71, though Gibson was plagued by five fouls.
Bellinelli’s backcourt wizardry -- he tied a career-high in assists -- guided the Bulls at the outset of the fourth quarter with Robinson, who was seen vomiting in a trash can on the sidelines while draped by towels, alongside him.
However, that duo and the frontcourt trio of Butler, Boozer and Noah experienced scoring issues, as did the Nets, with both teams’ once-high field-goal percentages significantly dropping as time went on, though the visitors were able to maintain and gradually increase their lead.
While the Bulls got back within striking distance, they couldn’t quite close the gap and it took more effort -- for instance, a gorgeous Robinson crossover sequence in which he thoroughly embarrassed Nets reserve Kris Humphries thrilled the crowd, but was only worth two points -- for the hosts to make things close than it took for Brooklyn to extend the lead.
But the indefatigable Robinson doggedly kept at it, leading teammates like the frenetic Noah -- his weak-side block of a Nets layup was a remarkable display of both hustle and athleticism, particularly given his ongoing bout with plantar fasciitis -- and heading into the game’s stretch run, the Bulls were still in position to end the series.
A Robinson pull-up jumper with just over a minute to go put the Bulls within two points, 92-90, and on the subsequent possession a Nets turnover gave the home team a chance to tie or take the lead.
But after a Robinson drive and layup attempt -- one with plenty of contact -- didn’t fall, Boozer was disqualified on a loose-ball foul, leading to Nets reserve big man Andray Blatche (10 points, seven rebounds) going to the line and splitting a pair of free throws with 32 seconds remaining.
Out of a timeout, a Nazr Mohammed layup—the backup center checked in to replace Boozer—made it 93-92 with 25.2 seconds left and after forcing two consecutive Brooklyn timeouts with stifling defense, leading to Robinson fouling Blatche, who knocked down both attempts at the charity stripe giving the visitors a three-point edge with 19.2 seconds left.
Belinelli missed a game-tying attempt from the corner and while Noah tracked down the rebound, he also stepped on the sideline, returning possession to the Nets.
The Nets inbounded the ball from in front of their bench -- they had used all of their timeouts -- and Noah tied up Williams, forcing a jump ball, of which Johnson gained possession and dribbled out the clock, forcing a Game 7 Saturday at the Barclays Center.