For Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich, it must have seemed like it was 2009 all over again. For Nate Robinson, it was a moment he must have dreamed about since his childhood in Seattle.
From start to finish, Game 4 of the Bulls-Nets first-round playoff series was action-packed — there were stretches where Robinson played as if he channeled his idol, Michael Jordan, as well as brouhahas between current (Robinson) and ex-Bulls — and after three overtimes, the Bulls came out of Saturday afternoon’s contest at the United Center with a 142-134 victory and a 3-1 series lead heading into Monday night’s Game 5 in Brooklyn.
The combination of Carlos Boozer’s continued stellar offense (21 points, eight rebounds) and Hinrich’s competitiveness (18 points, 14 assists) — the veteran floor general harassed his more-heralded counterpart, Brooklyn’s Deron Williams (32 points, 10 assists), from the outset with pesky defense — enabled the hosts to get off to a quick start, something that’s frequently eluded them, both throughout the series with the Nets and the entire regular season.
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Hinrich’s hustle led to a Williams losing his dribble on consecutive possessions off deflections, the second of which resulted in a mad scramble for a loose ball, concluding with swingman Jimmy Butler (16 points) — who returned to his late-season offensive assertiveness and was a double-digit scorer in the opening period — gathering it, making a mad dash downcourt and finishing a layup with contact for an eventual three-point play.
Noah (15 points, 13 rebounds, four blocked shots), while not 100 percent physically, also played with his trademark frenetic energy — he exhorted the crowd, something the normally mild-mannered Hinrich also did — but still wasn’t at his peak effectiveness, something exacerbated by his matchup with fellow All-Star center Brook Lopez (26 points, 11 rebounds), the most reliable player on both ends of the floor for Brooklyn thus far in the series.
But despite the Bulls’ inspired play, it remained a close-knit affair and with Lopez’s interior scoring and a lift off the bench from ex-Bull C.J. Watson (nine points), the Nets actually led, 26-25 — aided by a technical foul on Bulls assistant coach Ron Adams, something out of character for the coaching staff as a whole, even head coach Tom Thibodeau, for the most part — after a quarter of play, following Robinson’s (34 points on 14-for-23 shooting) layup with 1.8 seconds remaining in the frame.
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All-Star Luol Deng (15 points, eight rebounds, six assists) started to come alive late in the previous period and it carried over to the outset of the second quarter, as did Hinrich’s aggressive and efficient scoring, helping the Bulls not only overtake the visitors, but build a cushion, following a 9-0 run to start the frame, capped by a Robinson three in transition, which prompted a Nets timeout.
Brooklyn regrouped to once again draw close, as reserve big man Andray Blatche (13 points) led the way, but then a diversion from the actual game action occurred: Watson and Robinson, his successor as the Bulls’ backup point guard, got tangled up on the sideline and it subsequently evolved into a mild scuffle, with Robinson slamming Watson into the scorer’s table, resulting in double technical fouls, players (and coaches) from both sides breaking up the skirmish and the home crowd, already not fans of Watson, showing their appreciation for the dramatic, if ultimately benign, scene.
As far as the actual basketball being played, Hinrich continued to excel — in back-to-back sequences, he made unbelievable hustle plays (a between-the-legs save while flying out of bounds and a strip of brawny Nets power forward Reggie Evans, respectively), then knocked down jumpers on the other end — and his spirit proved contagious, as the Bulls built a double-digit advantage.
However, despite an uncharacteristically high-scoring period — aided by 59 percent first-half shooting, which was highlighted by Butler knocking down all five of his shots and Hinrich shooting 5-for-6, including a pair of triples — concluded with the Bulls leading by the close margin of 58-55 at the intermission, after a corner trey by the previously struggling Gerald Wallace (17 points, nine rebounds) with 1.9 seconds left in the frame.
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After the break, with the exciting second quarter over and the Nets’ comeback at the end of the first half still fresh in both teams’ minds — giving the visitors some momentum and likely sobering the Bulls — the tenor of the game settled down, as Brooklyn began to assert itself behind the play of Williams.
The hosts started the third quarter in lackluster fashion, allowing their guests to overtake them by the midway point of the period — an explosive Williams drive and dunk showed that simply wouldn’t wilt away in this pivotal game of the series — as the Nets even got offensive contributions from the typically light-scoring Evans (15 points, 13 rebounds), a rebounding specialist.
Beyond the back-and-forth play between Hinrich and Williams — the latter, more of a primary scorer for his team, logically took a higher volume of shots — both teams took a by-committee approach, with Brooklyn shooting a higher percentage in the frame, but the Bulls remaining within close contact even though their gaudy first-half shooting numbers dropped.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls trailed, 84-76, following yet another improbable sequence — Robinson deflected the ball, saved it from going out of bounds by throwing it off Watson, of all people — that ended in Lopez hitting a three-pointer, the first of his NBA career, 2.6 seconds before the third quarter buzzer sounded.
Robinson and fellow reserve Taj Gibson (10 points) made their respective presences felt at the outset of the fourth quarter, but the Bulls failed to chip into the deficit, as the likes of Wallace, in the midst of a very uneven series, and Blatche did damage as well as Watson, someone familiar with both good times and bad in Chicago.
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Things continued to be chippy in the contest — Robinson was absolutely flattened by a Wallace screen in the backcourt — but the Nets kept calm, manufacturing a double-digit lead, as their hosts struggled to get any semblance of offense going, aside from Robinson’s virtuoso scoring efforts, which prevented the visitors, who reached triple digits with plenty of time to go, from running away with things.
Foul trouble started to become an issue for the Bulls — Hinrich picked up his fifth midway through the frame, but stayed in the contest — and the game appeared to be slipping away in general as it entered the stretch run, even after Watson’s missed a wide-open dunk in transition, something he never attempted while playing for his current opponent.
Robinson, however, continued to persevere as a one-man gang scoring the basketball to make it a single-digit affair, dropping 23 points in the period — including a stretch of 12 consecutive points starting at the 2:53 mark — and then finding Boozer for a layup to tie the contest at 109 apiece with under a minute to play.
Following a pair of Lopez free throws and a timeout, a Noah putback with 23.9 seconds on the clock knotted things up again at 111 all with 23.9 seconds left in regulation, the Nets took a timeout to set up their final possession.
Williams was isolated at the top of the key against Hinrich and drove for a contested pull-up jumper, which was off the mark, and although Wallace rebounded the ball with an opportunity to score in close for the game-winner, Butler snuffed out his layup attempt, sending the game into an extra session.
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Overtime began with Noah making an impact on both ends, blocking a Lopez shot on one end and finishing a reverse layup on the other, but Brooklyn seized an early edge in the period.
A Robinson jumper tied the game at 117 with 1:02 to go and after a defensive stop, the Bulls took the lead when a Robinson pick-and-roll with Noah led to a nifty interior pass to Boozer for a layup with 26.3 seconds on the clock.
Brooklyn didn’t panic and after a timeout, Johnson was isolated on the wing and drove for a floater in the teeth of the Bulls’ defense, swishing it to make it a 119-119 affair with 11.8 seconds before the final buzzer.
Johnson’s clutch shot just set up more of Robinson’s heroics, as the diminutive scorer took what first appeared to be an ill-advised runner off one foot with from deep two-point range, but it banked cleanly off the glass and through the net, giving the Bulls a 121-119 lead and sending the United Center into a state of euphoria.
The Nets had a final opportunity with two seconds left and Johnson delivered once again, hitting another floater in the lane as time expired to tie the game and send it into double overtime.
Noah continued to make his presence felt, as did Robinson, and the high-energy duo’s knack for making plays, scoring and otherwise, resulted in the hosts taking control of the game as a Noah dunk off spectacular ball movement put the Bulls ahead, 127-123, with 1:18 left.
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But after a timeout, Johnson struck again, completing a three-point play to narrow the gap, and after Robinson fouled out on an offensive foul, a Gibson foul during a scramble for a rebound on the Nets’ subsequent possession put Lopez on the line — the Bulls were in the penalty — and the center split a pair of attempts at the charity stripe to tie the contest at 127.
Deng and Johnson exchanged misses, giving the Bulls a chance to finally end the contest with 5.5 seconds remaining in the game’s sixth period.
Following a series of timeouts to strategize, a Noah drive, after initially being stripped, was swatted out of bounds by Lopez with four-tenths of a second on the clock, and a desperation attempt predictably failed, leading to a third overtime.
A jumper for Noah opened the session, followed on the next possession by the center fouling out of the game after 40 minutes of action, well beyond his prescribed minutes limit.
But even with their emotional leader watching from the sidelines, the Bulls refused to relent and Gibson, Noah’s replacement, stepped up with a baseline jumper to give the hosts a five-point lead with 3:19 to play.
After a Williams runner, Deng knocked down a jumper and the two teams traded defensive stops, then rapid-fire turnovers before a loose-ball foul on Evans made the rugged insider the Nets’ first disqualification of the day.
But the Bulls couldn’t capitalize on offense and on Brooklyn’s next trip, Gibson fouled Lopez, his sixth of the game, and the Nets center knocked down two free throws to bring the visitors within three with under a minute to go.
On the subsequent possession Nazr Mohammed, who replaced Gibson, made a jump hook in the lane with 32.6 seconds remaining, prompting a Nets timeout with the score 137-132, in the Bulls’ favor.
Brooklyn remained resilient, as Lopez made a layup with 21.2 seconds left and after a Bulls timeout, Boozer was fouled, hit the first of two free throws, but Mohammed corralled the second, put it back and was fouled, though he didn’t complete the three-point play.
Still, it was enough to finally seal the deal after a long afternoon and while the Nets would foul out of desperation, free throws by Marco Belinelli would put it away, ensuring that all in attendance for the early start would make it out of the arena before dark.