The Brooklyn Nets needed this one. And they didn’t get it.
Facing a 2-1 series deficit Saturday afternoon, the Nets knew a Game 4 win was necessary to avoid needing three straight wins to close out the Bulls in their first-round playoff series. A win on Saturday would have meant essentially a best-of-three series, with two of those games (5 and 7) taking place on the Barclays Center floor.
And as the Nets came back from a halftime deficit to take an eight-point lead entering the fourth quarter, and as Deron Williams’ 3-pointers and Joe Johnson’s post-up jumpers rattled home late, it became even more apparent that the Nets needed Game 3.
As the first and second overtimes came to a close with the game still tied, the Nets understood they could not waste 58 minutes of Deron Williams, 51 minutes of center Brook Lopez and 48 minutes of an injured Joe Johnson (foot) without coming away with a win.
To do so would mean a 3-1 deficit and, mentally, even more.
But that’s what occurred Saturday afternoon, as a four-hour, triple-overtime affair resulted in the Bulls outlasting the Nets, 142-134. Both teams are physically exhausted after eight players played more than 48 minutes and 276 points were scored. But only one team leaves the United Center for Brooklyn emotionally exhausted and unsure if they can recover from the deficit they now face.
“It’s definitely a momentum changer, and it’s kind of disappointing for us as players,” Johnson said of the 3-1 series. “Regardless of the situation, when you’ve got a team down like that on their home floor you’ve got to close out. And I thought we made a lot of mental errors down the stretch within three minutes, and it can’t happen like that.”
Before those last three minutes, the Nets sat firmly in the driver’s seat with a 14-point lead and just three minutes left to play. If they could just close out those pesky Bulls—a solid bet considering Tom Thibodeau’s group is known more for their defensive stops than instant offense—homecourt advantage would be theirs, with the series tied at two heading back to Brooklyn, where the Nets went 26-15 this season.
But somewhere in those last three minutes, when Nate Robinson mad the United Center floor his personal playground, the Nets saw everything slip away. A C.J. Watson missed dunk with no one around him. Four missed free throws from forwards Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace. A five-second inbounds violation. Allowing multiple offensive rebounds when Robinson finally missed.
“It’s tough, definitely a heartbreaker,” Joe Johnson said. “But you’ve got to get back to the drawing board and see what we can do in the next game. This is definitely, definitely a game that we let get away, and it’s disappointing.”
But the Nets had their chances after losing their late lead. A Deron Williams jumper hit back iron at the end of regulation; Gerald Wallace’s 3-point play gave the Nets a lead to start the first overtime; a Joe Johnson jumper to open the second overtime gave Brooklyn a 123-121 lead; with less than a minute to play in that same period Brook Lopez missed a free throw that would have given the Nets a one-point lead.
The rules say the Nets need three straight wins to advance to the next round—likely against the defending-champion Miami Heat—but in the Brooklyn locker room there was no talk of a Game 6 or Game 7.
“We’re just focused on the next game on Monday and stuff,” Reggie Evans said. “So we’ll do our best. We’ll come back home, crowd should be very excited to have us back, and do a good job and get us a win.”
Added Lopez: “I just take it one game a time. That’s my philosophy. I try to take things one day, one game, at a time. And I think that’s the best way to look at it. Prepare for Monday.”
The Nets are saying all the right things, but the looks on their faces paint a different picture. A 14-point lead with three minutes to play and 63 minutes of action without a win will do that. Wallace said the Nets hadn’t played 48 straight minutes of good basketball since Game 1. That can't happen in Game 5.
“It’s gonna be tough but we feel like we can do it,” Williams said. “But one game at a time is what it takes. Worry about Monday.”
Now they really need it.