Something is wrong with the Brooklyn Nets offense, and if they don’t make the necessary changes they’ll soon have the entire offseason to figure it out at home.
After scoring a paltry 82 points in a home loss Monday, the Nets failed to reach even that number Thursday night, falling short to the Bulls in Game 3, 79-76.
The words spoken inside the the Brooklyn locker room postgame followed the same patter: that the team’s inability to reverse the ball to the weakside in halfcourt sets caused problems. Too many times the Nets, who shot 34.6 percent from the field, settled for isolations or simple pick-and-rolls against a stingy Bulls defense that wasn’t fooled—or beaten—by any of it.
“We just have to move the basketball from side-to-side. We can’t play on one side; they’re too good a defensive team to play on just one side,” shooting guard Joe Johnson said. “We’ve got to swing the ball and make their defense rotate, and get the best shot available.”
And more times than not, the visitors admitted, the best shot available was the one they wanted. In a first half where they shot 22 percent from the field, they committed just five turnovers. They weren't playing sloppy. Shots simply weren't falling. In a 15-minute stretch spanning late into the first quarter to midway through the second, the Nets shot missed 25 of 26 shots, eight different players missed a shot and a 12-point lead (17-5) become a 10-point deficit (33-23), a 28-6 run by the Bulls.
“At times,” Deron Williams said of his team's ability to find open looks. “I felt like we didn't finish anything around the basket in the first half. We missed some open shots and some open threes throughout the whole game that we normally make. For whatever reason we’re just not hitting shots right now.”
For six minutes, though, that wasn't the case for Williams. He opened the game with eight quick points to push the Nets to an early lead, but went quiet from there, failing to score again until midway through the third quarter. He finished with 18 points but needed 14 field goal attempts to get there, following an eight-point performance in Game 2 in which he missed nine of his 10 field goal attempts.
Brook Lopez, who matched Carlos Boozer with a game-high 22 points, agreed with Williams that his team found open looks, but his fellow frontcourt mate Reggie Evans—strictly a defensive specialist who has attempted eight shots in the series—said when those open shots didn't fall early, the Bulls defense packed in on the weak side, making rotations nearly impossible.
“We've got to hit the weak-side guard…and in the corner we have to hit him. And that’s all about rotating the ball,” Evans said. “That weak-side defender is just packing it in on the big guys. We need to be able to knock down jumpers no matter whether they’re trapping in the post.”
Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo shared his players' sentiment, that a handful of the Nets' early misses were wide-open, including 3-pointers from his biggest threats.
"We are not shooting the three well at all, not just the contested ones but the open ones," he said of his team's 5-of-21 effort from beyond the arc. "And we did a poor job finishing in the paint. We have been struggling inside and we can't win if you're not making shots in the paint."
Johnson’s and Williams’ lackluster shooting didn’t help matters, and reserves C.J. Watson (1-of-8, 2 points), Andray Blatche (3-of-9, 7 points) and Gerald Wallace (2-of-8, 5 points) didn’t add to the cause, either. The Nets were quick to credit the Bulls’ defense, but even Tom Thibodeau admitted at Thursday morning’s shootaround that in Game 2 the Nets missed open looks they usually make. And though they had some of those same looks tonight, as the shooting guard Johnson noted, the outcome was the same.
“We’ve had some great looks when we get out on the break," Johnson said. "We just missed a few shots that could have helped us out, but we’ll get a chance next game and knock those down.”
They’ll get that chance Saturday afternoon, when they square off again in the United Center with a chance to either tie the series at two or fall behind 3-1 heading back to Brooklyn. Johnson said the Nets “feel pretty good with where we’re at,” and Lopez added the team must stay poised and confident, but when it comes down to it, Evans, of all people, said the Nets' success will come down to making shots and finishing at the rim when those same looks are available in Game 4.
“You gotta be able to work on it and be ready to knock it down when the opportunity presents itself,” he said. “So it’ll come around again next game, and we still gotta be able to knock it down. And when we knock it down it’ll loosen up [the Bulls defense] so we’re not clogging up the paint so much, and we’ll go from there.