The Brooklyn Nets, who have won 50 games this season, are at home in Brooklyn on the brink of elimination, taking on the Chicago Bulls at 7 P.M. EST. Down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, this is an absolute must-win game for Brooklyn to keep their playoff hopes alive. Here’s five things to keep an eye on.
1) What will Brooklyn run?
One of the major criticisms of Brooklyn this season is simple: they’re boring. Their offense is often predictable and easily exploited by excellent defensive teams. 86 games in, we know what Brooklyn can do at their best (Game 1) and their worst (Game 3). How they use their offensive possessions throughout tonight’s contest is crucial; not just the possessions out of timeouts, or in the beginning of the game or second half, but those frustrating middle-of-quarter possessions, where the Nets offense has the tendency to unravel.
It’s true in every game, but especially in an elimination game against a team like Chicago: there can be no wasted possessions on the offensive end, or they won’t have many left.
2) Bench Mob Improbable.
While it was simultaneously an amazing and vomit-inducing sight to see Nate Robinson completely eschew all reasonable methods of playing basketball to all but single-handedly destroy Brooklyn, it is worth noting that teams don’t blow 14-point fourth-quarter leads often and players don’t usually bank in running one-handers from 20 feet out. Robinson had to have the game of his life to give Chicago the victory; if they have to rely on an offensive explosion from him again, it’s a reasonable possibility that we’ll see a Game 6.
3) Protecting the paint.
Out of all the issues Brooklyn struggles with, one of them hasn’t been Brook Lopez. Lopez has risen to the occasion in his first-ever playoff series, averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks through four games, shooting 48% from the field and 90% on 7.5 free throw attempts per game. Lopez has been the only consistent offensive & defensive threat throughout the team’s four games, and it’s his performance defensively that has surprised.
Lopez has done an admirable job cutting off lanes to the basket, contesting Bulls players that enter the paint, and swatting away shots. With Lopez on the court, the Bulls have shot 44.4% in the paint in this series, with him off the court, they’ve shot 65.8%. His 17 blocks through four playoff games are three more than the entire rest of the team combined. Other than Game 4, the Nets defense has been solid throughout this series, and it’s started with Lopez.
4) Gerald Wallace’s non-shooting offense.
It’s no secret that Wallace has struggled shooting this season, particularly after the All-Star break, but Wallace was at least a reliable threat to drive to the basket and either attempt to draw a foul or find an open shooter off a collapse. That’s barely happened this series: the Bulls have been content to abandon Wallace completely on the perimeter, allowing his defender to roam and act as a “help” defender when Wallace enters the lane, only he’s just helping himself. On 13 mostly wide-open three-point attempts in this series, Wallace has made just four, and because of the lack of defense-swallowing offense, he’s recorded just six assists. That’s as many as the passing-allergic Brook Lopez.
Herein lies the conundrum: if Wallace can get going early and force Chicago to defend him on the perimeter, the entire floor opens up in ways Brooklyn hasn’t seen all series. But if he misses those early shots, those are those wasted possessions that could help kill Brooklyn’s chances.
5) The crowd, and the game.
This may be Brooklyn’s last home game until November. How will the fans — who have been a mixed bag this year — react? And more importantly, how will the Nets?