Joakim Noah scored his first point and on the next possession, in his 27th minute, he closed hard to marginally, if at all, bother a wide-open corner 3-point attempt.
Tonight, that was plenty.
The Bulls – with lots of help from Brooklyn – crippled the Nets’ offense and watched one more airball as time expired, preserving a 79-76 Game 3 win. Chicago surrendered a late 12-0 Brooklyn run, but the Bulls are still the only lower-seeded Eastern Conference team to win a playoff game, and they now have a 2-1 series lead.
Those positives, of course, mean plenty of negatives for the Nets, who are the NBA’s only higher-seeded team losing its series.
The Nets’ final numbers, 82.2 offensive rating and 34.6 field-goal percentage, don’t show how anemic their offense was for most of the game. Until Marshon Brooks entered the game in the fourth quarter, Brooklyn shot 27.9 percent from the field.
The Nets’ three offensive centerpieces – Brook Lopez (22 points), Deron Williams (18 points) and Joe Johnson (15 points) – weren’t terrible, at least in the context of this game. Their combined field-goal percentage (43) was much higher than their teammates’ (24).
But absent other reliable scoring options on the court, Tom Thibodeau used his strong-side-flooding defense to smother Lopez, Williams and Johnson. Without space to operate, the trio couldn’t do much.
Blatche was the Nets’ only reliable complementary offensive threat during the regular season, but in a physical playoff series, they can’t count on him. Blatche has done a lot to overcome his reputation for being a mentally weak player, but he made that progress against teams other than the hard-nosed Bulls. In the second quarter, Blatche took a fairly typical playoff foul from Nazr Mohammed and responded by elbowing Mohammed and getting a technical. In this tough series, Blatche showed his true colors, and that bodes poorly for the Nets.
If the Nets don’t get supplementary scoring from Blatche, who shot 3-for-9, who can they get it from? Down the line, the answers are uninspiring.
Finally, P.J. Carlesimo turned to Brooks. Brooks didn’t play particularly well, scoring two points on 1-of-3 shooting, but the threat of him scoring opened the offense. When playing Brooks with its Big Three, Brooklyn’s offensive rating surged to 121.5. That was in just five minutes, so small-sample caveats apply, but alternative lineups have a longer track record in this series of not working offensively.
The Bulls’ offense wasn’t pretty, either – their final offensive rating was 84.7 – but their gameplan was a bit better suited to this type of defensive struggle. Like the Nets did with Lopez, Williams and Johnson, the Bulls funneled their offense through their top offensive players. Carlos Boozer (22 points) and Luol Deng (21 points) combined to take nearly half Chicago’s shots.
Even though Boozer and Deng aren’t as gifted scorers as Lopez, Williams and Johnson, the Chicago duo shot more efficiently. That’s because Boozer and Deng play with Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler, two above-average 3-point shooters, and Noah, a plus passer and finisher – three players who help space the floor.
The marginally positive help tonight was based mostly on reputation, though. Hinrich and Butler combined to shoot 1-for-6 on 3-pointers, and Noah went 0-for-7 with as many turnovers as assists (two). Like I said, it wasn’t pretty.
But as C.J. Watson’s final shot, his seventh miss in eight tries, sailed by the rim, it proved good enough.