"I’m proud of this team and we’re going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn, and we’re going to win” - Joakim Noah following the Bulls loss in game six. Noah, who had one of the most inspiring games of his career, did just what he said the Bulls would do: win.
For tonight's recap, we're going to break it up into two parts; the first half and the second half, because that's exactly what tonight was for the Brooklyn Nets -- a two-part game.
Let's start with a quote from Nets head coach P.J. Carlesimo from before tonight's game on the team's defense:
"We did clean it up a lot from the first half to the second half in Game 6, which was encouraging, but we don't want to be making major adjustments at halftime. We want to clean it up on the fly if we have problems now, and not have a half where we didn't defend very well and then a half where we defended a lot better."
How did the Nets play defense in the first half? Here are some words to describe it: disgusting, abominable, detestable, distasteful, hideous, shocking, nauseating... you get the point. Under the circumstances -- Game 7, at home, in front of an energized crowd -- the Nets played one of their worst halves of basketball of the entire season.
Mostly dominated by a one-legged Joakim Noah, the Bulls shot 55.3% and outrebounded the Nets 21-13, with nine of those rebounds coming on the offensive end. Noah, who proclaimed that the Bulls would win the game after Game 6, controlled the half, on both ends of the floor. In just over 18 first half minutes, Noah scored 16 points on 8-11 shooting to go along with five rebounds, all offensive. He was also a +17 in a first half domination that saw Chicago lead 61-44.
Early in the first half -- though the Nets defense was no where to be found -- Brooklyn was able to trade baskets with Chicago and keep the game within striking distance. After the first quarter, the Nets trailed 29-25 and shot 55.6%. But once the second quarter rolled around, things went from bad to worse. The Nets field goal percentage in the 2nd quarter was just 40% while the Bulls raised their field goal percentage to a whopping 61.9%.
Chicago missed their leading scorer from the regular season and staunch defender Luol Deng, their starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, their starting center Joakim Noah played with a torn plantar fascia, their backup point guard battled the flu, and their Offensive Rating during the regular season was 100.4 -- 24th in the NBA. Yet, through it all, they were still able to light up Brooklyn's defense for 61 first=half points with pick and roll and ball movement.
With all that said, the Nets still had another half to try and make a comeback.
Something happened at halftime in the locker room to both Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace. They just would't take it anymore. Their pride got in the way of allowing the Nets to get blown out on their home floor in a winner-take-all Game 7.
Though Brooklyn allowed Chicago to shoot 50% in the third quarter, the Nets came out of the gate hot to start the third. With Wallace and Evans leading the charge, Brooklyn was able to cut the Bulls' lead to four (65-69) with 5:29 remaining in the third quarter. Wallace, who shot 13.5% from three-point range after the All-star break, hit three of his five three-point attempts in that third period. Evans -- who played just over seven minutes in the first half -- was able to energize his team as well as the crowd with some hustle and rebounding. The oft-criticized Evans grabbed seven rebounds -- five of them offensive -- in the Nets' 31-point outburst. As the two teams headed into the fourth, it was just a 7-point game, 82-75.
The fourth quarter is normally a special time for Joe Johnson: we've seen him hit big shot after big shot throughout the season. From game winners to game-tying shots, "big shot Joe" had become a crunch time legend for Brooklyn. Tonight though, a different Joe Johnson took the court.
Though Johnson has struggled at times with his shot throughout this season and at times in this series, we had never seen a struggle quite like tonight -- particularly in the fourth quarter.
Johnson, who was 2-9 from the field and 1-5 from three in quarters 1-3, was simply unable to do anything in the fourth. Often times, when the Nets would make their push, it would be Johnson who would wind up getting -- and missing -- a key three-point shot down the stretch. Whether it was the plantar fascia hindering his ability to get any lift on his jump shots, or just a great defensive effort from the Bulls, the $19 million dollar man was just unable to thrive in what is usually his time to shine.
"It happens," Johnson said after the game. "It's too hard that happened in Game 7. It was tough not being able to really come through for the guys."
"It was the injury and it was Chicago's defense," Carlesimo added of Johnson. "We wouldn't be here in Game 7 if it wasn't for him."
This was a rough series for the Nets: blowing a 14-point lead with three minutes remaining in game four to shooting 1-25 at one point in game 3, Brooklyn's play on both ends of the court was inconsistent throughout. Most people would agree that the Nets had a talent advantage in every game of this series. But the Bulls had other advantages that were obvious during the 7-game sprint. They had more cohesion and a better game plan. They had a team that's been at this for five straight years. They had a guy who -- though playing with a torn plantar fascia -- was able to come through on his guarantee by lighting the Nets up for 24 points on 12-17 shooting, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks.
With the final buzzer on the Nets' first season in Brooklyn already sounded, the offseason begins now. Should the Nets be proud of 49 wins and a playoff birth? Probably not considering the amount of money they spent last off-season and the sky-high expectations that were set by their owner. But one thing is for unmistakable: the Nets gave the entire borough of Brooklyn as well as their many fans -- new and old -- something to root for and be proud of for many years to come.