Deron Williams made a pair of free throws as the Barclays Center fans chanted “M-V-P!” On the Bulls’ next possession, Williams stole the ball, sprinted down the court and – the same player who didn’t dunk until April – delivered a reverse slam.
More than we’ve realized, this is a different Deron Williams. Frankly, and perhaps more importantly at the moment, these are a different Chicago Bulls.
Williams is full of health of vigor. The Bulls – and, as a result, this series – are not.
Williams had 22 points and seven assists to lead the Nets to a resounding 106-89 Game 1 win over Chicago that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. Brooklyn led by more than 15 for the game’s final 28 minutes and by as many as 28 points.
In the last 15 years, teams that win Game 1 by at least 17 points have won 41 of 44 series. As long as Williams keeps playing like this, it’s difficult to envision the Bulls turning this series into the fourth exception.
Including tonight (and excluding the season finale, when he sat out the fourth quarter), Williams is averaging 24.1 points and 8.4 assists per game since March 8. For perspective, only twice has a player averaged those marks for a full season since 1990-91 (LeBron James in 2009-10 and Gary Payton in 1999-00).
Early, Williams’ production was matched by Brook Lopez, who scored 19 of his 21 points in the first half. Over and over again, Williams and Noah got favorable position inside against a team that has a reputation for defending the paint much tougher than it did. But that reputation was built by two players who were limited tonight.
Joakim Noah, played just 13 minutes, and that seemed like 13 minutes too many. Taj Gibson got in foul trouble and had to sit.
Chicago was outscored by 13 points in the 12 minutes neither Noah, who’s losing his battle with plantar fasciitis, nor Gibson played, and that was the difference. When Noah is healthy, the Bulls don’t have to endure so much time without either of their top defenders.
The entire Bulls team didn’t pass Williams and Lopez alone in scoring until midway through the second quarter, as Chicago’s offensive troubles became the predominant story of the game.
For a long time, Carlos Boozer, who finished 25 points, was the Bulls’ only reliable scoring source.
Luol Deng made the Bulls first field goal, and then he didn’t make another shot until the third quarter was mostly over, finishing 3-for-11. Kirk Hinrich, who limped off late in the third quarter and didn’t return, and Richard Hamilton combined to shoot 0-for-5. Marco Belinelli shot 3-for-8, though he at least got to the line.
There’s no doubt Chicago, which scored just 35 first-half points, had offensive problems. But those issues were overstated.
The Bulls still had a higher offensive rating (102.7) than all four teams that played earlier in the day: Knicks (95.9), Nuggets (95.7), Warriors (91.7) and Celtics (95.9).
Nate Robinson scored 17 points on 12 shots, and Jimmy Butler went 5-for-8.
However, Robinson – likely because Tom Thibodeau didn’t trust the point guard’s defense – played just eight minutes before the fourth quarter, and Butler disappeared for nearly the entire first half. Butler’s issues are perhaps correctable, but it’s getting too late for Robinson to endear himself to Thibodeau, even though riding Robinson’s high-variance game might be the Bulls’ best chance as underdogs.
The Nets, on the other hand, never had problems getting going. In addition to Williams and Lopez, Joe Johnson (16 points), Gerald Wallace (14 points), C.J. Watson (14) and Andray Blatche (12 points) all had their moments in supporting roles.
As big as the gap looked between these teams tonight, the series isn’t over, and several Bulls (and two former Bulls who now play for the Nets, C.J. Watson and Keith Bogans) should know that. The last team to win Game 1 by at least 17 points and then lose the series was the Bulls, who beat the Miami Heat by 21 before losing the next four games.
Noah might not be able to give the Bulls much in this series, but they can look to his words after that big win over the Heat two years ago.
“It’s only one game,” Noah said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played.”