In their most important game of the season to this point, the Brooklyn Nets, down 3-2 in the first-round quarterfinal series against the Chicago Bulls, travel to Chicago to stave off elimination on the road. Here’s five things I’m keeping an eye on.
1) Andray Blatche. As I spoke about at length in an earlier post, the Nets have been at their absolute best this season when Blatche shares the floor with Brook Lopez. They’ve outscored the Bulls 91-53 in 36 minutes the two have shared time. They can’t play all of their minutes together — they’re the only two viable options at center after Kris Humphries has taken a noticeable step backwards this season — but the more minutes they share against a depleted Chicago front line, the better. I’m just crossing my fingers that Blatche’s calf and conditioning can stand the test, even if he doesn’t officially “start.”
2) Who’s suited? The Chicago Bulls have a long injury report — guard Derrick Rose is unquestionably out as he’s sat all season, guard Kirk Hinrich will likely not play, and forwards Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are both game-time decisions with illness. Luckily Deng and Gibson are no Michael Jordan, so there shouldn’t be another Chicago-style Flu Game. Even if Deng, Gibson, and Hinrich all play, you can speculate on how effective they’ll be — how will a guard with a bruised calf stay in front of Deron Williams? Who will the Bulls start if Deng is unable to go? How will the Bulls allocate minutes to Noah, who is already limited by plantar fasciitis, if Gibson can’t back him up?
3) Deron Williams. Speaking of which… Deron Williams will spend much of his time faced up against Nate Robinson or an unhealthy Kirk Hinrich tonight. Williams has scored over 20 points in three of the five games this series — the two wins and the triple-overtime loss. The Nets go as Williams goes; with Joe Johnson limited to decoy duty, they’ll need a big game from him to extend this series to Game 7 in Brooklyn. Luckily for Brooklyn, all the pieces are there — will he capitalize?
4) Robinson v. Watson. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the most likely origin for the beef between Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson is Watson’s involvement with boxing star Floyd Mayweather’s ex-girlfriend, Josie Harris. Mayweather assaulted Harris and served two months in prison for it, but Robinson is one of Mayweather’s biggest fans and supporters. These two nearly came to blows in Game 4 and have repeatedly said that they don’t like each other — with tensions running high on both sides, seeing these two go tête-à-tête tonight should be a delight.
5) The Rotation. Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo shortened the rotation to eight in Monday night’s victory, flanking the starting five with Watson, Blatche, and Kris Humphries. That meant a lot of two-point guard sets with Watson & Williams, joined by either Johnson or Gerald Wallace on the wing. Thibodeau also used an eight-man rotation Monday, but two of those players are now game-time decisions. it’ll be interesting to see how each coach reacts to early situations: who will be the first players off the bench? Will Thibodeau keep Deng & Gibson suited up, even if they’re not supposed to play, just in case? (He totally could.) Will ex-Bulls guard and current rotation anathema Keith Bogans come in for the first time since Game 1?
Keep a close eye on all of this, if only because the Nets are undefeated in games that could end their season this year, and look to extend that streak tonight.