NEW YORK— With an opportunity to eliminate the Nets, advance to the second round of the postseason and get some much-needed rest, everything seemed as if it was in place for the Bulls to win Monday night’s close-out game at the Barclays Center, even as they trailed for the vast majority of the contest.
But the Bulls, known for their resilience and ability, couldn’t overcome an uncharacteristic disadvantage on the glass, atypical defensive intensity and an inability to make a comeback—which is almost an expectation given the tenor of the series—and fell to the Nets, 110-91, in Game 5 of the first-round matchup, reducing their series lead to 3-2.
Another of the Bulls’ sluggish starts was the order of the evening, as the visitors made only two of their first nine shots.
Nate Robinson (20 points, eight assists), the hero of Saturday afternoon’s triple-overtime Game 4 win in Chicago, started in place of Kirk Hinrich—the veteran point guard was out with a calf injury suffered in the same contest—and while his scoring ability is unquestioned, the diminutive spark-plug doesn’t possess the same natural ball-distribution skills of the injured starter, leading to uneven offense at the outset of the contest.
For the Nets, the familiar trio of Joe Johnson, floor general Deron Williams (23 points, 10 assists) and All-Star center Brook Lopez (28 points, 10 rebounds) led the way in the early going, staking the hosts to an early cushion, but behind the scoring of Robinson and Carlos Boozer (10 points, 10 rebounds), the Bulls closed the gap.
Rookie point guard Marquis Teague got his first meaningful action since March and while his stint was uneven, the real issue was the continued solid play of Lopez on the interior, which led to the Bulls facing a 26-21 deficit at the conclusion of the opening period, following a Marco Belinelli jumper with 2.2 seconds left in the first quarter.
Backup power forward Kris Humphries, who has more notoriety for his short-lived marriage to reality-TV star Kim Kardashian than his actual basketball career, helped spark Brooklyn at the beginning of the second quarter and the home team appeared to be poised to capitalize on a Bulls lineup that didn’t feature ideal defensive matchups, a product of Hinrich’s absence.
[RELATED: Bulls must bounce back together after Game 5 loss]
But the Nets struggled to knock down open shots and Robinson’s instant-offense ability enabled the visitors to stay within striking distance and eventually overtake their hosts.
Brooklyn regained the lead, however, as Humphries and fellow reserve C.J. Watson made contributions and the Bulls’ ball movement stagnated, as well as facing a significant rebounding deficit, resulting in a larger margin of separation for the hosts.
Wings Jimmy Butler (18 points) and All-Star Luol Deng (12 points, eight rebounds) made timely baskets as the first half wound down, preventing the Nets from taking a double-digit lead into the intermission, but through two quarters of play, the Bulls trailed, 52-44.
After the break, the Bulls’ rebounding woes continued and former Utah teammates Boozer and Williams each began to take an increased role in their respective teams’ offenses, as did Deng and Noah for the visitors.
But with the strong interior play of Lopez and Reggie Evans (12 rebounds), the Nets were able to maintain a fairly comfortable lead, despite experiencing ball-security issues, which led to Bulls opportunities in transition and with Butler also producing as a scorer, as well as All-Star center Joakim Noah (11 points)—who was moving markedly better on his ailing right foot—making an impact, the visitors were able to make some inroads.
Butler was assertive in both going to the rim, where he showed a knack for drawing contact and finishing strong, and as a jump shooter, but although Brooklyn committed repeated miscues and had problems finishing around the rim, the Bulls were unable to keep the game close.
Heading into the final stanza, the despite their poor offensive execution, the Bulls slightly narrowed the gap and were behind by a 77-73 score, after Deng hit a tough, contested pull-up jumper off the dribble with 1.4 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
[NOTES: Rebounding an issue; Butler showing growth]
A Butler triple opened the scoring in the fourth quarter and made it a one-point affair, though the Nets immediately rallied to acquire some breathing room behind the play of backup big man Andray Blatche (13 points).
After a timeout, however, the Bulls predictably regrouped and with Deng and Belinelli serving as catalysts, though their momentum was briefly derailed after a Belinelli flagrant foul on Blatche, which seemed to light a fire under the talented reserve, who exercised his will as a scorer immediately afterward.
Still playing from behind as the game entered its stretch run, the almost-anticipated Bulls comeback was slow to materialize, as the visitors struggled offensively, and after a Gerald Wallace triple and subsequent steal and fast-break dunk gave the Nets a 103-91 lead with two minutes left, Game 6 at the United Center started to become a reality.
As time wound down, Brooklyn continued to attack—until regulars from both teams began to take seats—showing that even facing long odds, it was still a series.