The Brooklyn Nets take on the Chicago Bulls in a pivotal Game 3 of an all-knotted 1-1 first-round playoff series. Here's five things we're keeping an eye on.
1) Joakim Noah vs. Brook Lopez. Lopez ended the game with the gaudier numbers, but Noah simply outclassed the Nets center en route to a big fourth quarter (nine points, six rebounds, multiple defensive stops) that helped lead the Bulls to the 90-82 victory. With Lopez notorious for big first-half performances -- his 19 points in the first half of Game 1 were a major factor in the team's blowout victory -- they'll need him to perform on both sides of the floor for the Nets to have a shot.
2) Who's playing the 4? Reggie Evans is the team's de facto starter at power forward, but Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo played backup center Andray Blatche at power forward for crucial minutes in the fourth quarter. I remarked that Blatche would have to play the best (read: first) four minutes of defense in his entire career for the Nets to stand a chance, and he didn't do much in the way of stopping penetration or preventing opposing offensive rebounds. Carlesimo also played a few minutes of Gerald Wallace at the 4, which is a lineup I'm in favor of, if Wallace's body can withstand the added physicality when matched up with Taj Gibson or Carlos Boozer. (When Bulls forward Luol Deng plays the 4, it's a no-brainer.)
3) How the Nets choose to defend Carlos Boozer. As we talked about earlier today, there's an interesting paradox with some scorers like Boozer -- the more he feels he can beat you defensively, the more he might try to do so with lesser-quality shots. Boozer has averaged 19 points on 56% shooting in this series, but the Nets should have enough of an idea of how to defend him now. If they can continue to keep Boozer out of the paint -- whether that's with Evans, Blatche, Lopez, or anyone else -- and shooting fadeaway shots, they'll have a better chance at limiting points.
4) Joe Johnson. For reasons obvious -- with Johnson a game-time decision with plantar fasciitis, keeping an eye on whether he's suited up or, ahem, suited up.
5) Deron Williams vs. Joakim Noah. For perhaps equally obvious reasons to Johnson -- Williams's lanes to the paint were suddenly clogged by a dominating defensive presence in Joakim Noah when he got past the first line of defense, and he responded with his worst shooting night since March 17, 2011, when Williams hit just one of 12 shots in an 11-point loss to… the Chicago Bulls.
Noah's impact roaming the paint when healthy is as big a game-changer as anything the Bulls or Nets can offer, and Williams's numbers reflect the difference when Noah's on the floor. When playing the Bulls this season and Noah sits on the bench, Williams averages 19.5 points per 36 minutes, hit 15 of 27 shots in the paint (that's 8.2 attempts per 36 minutes in the paint), and is a +16. With Noah on the floor, Williams averages 15.7 points per 36, has shot just six times total in the paint (or 2.1 per 36, about 1/4th as often), and is a -24.
How Williams chooses to attack the Bulls when Noah is on the floor -- and just as importantly, taking advantage when he's off it -- could be a major factor tonight.