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Down and dirty, Nets-Bulls matchup won't be pretty

POSTED: Apr 19, 2013 6:50 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Deron Williams tossed off a slow start and is now key to the Nets' hopes against the Bulls.

On the surface, the teams in this 4-5 matchup in the East scarcely could be more different. Peel back the first layer or two, though, and similarities soon emerge.

Playoff Series Preview: Nets vs. Bulls

Yes, the Brooklyn Nets have the "wow" factor, from their season of excitement playing in the trendy neighborhoods of the renewed borough rather than crawling around the swamps of New Jersey. The Nets have the fancy new Barclays Center and that hypnotic Oculus thingie, and of course a glamorous, mysterious Russian owner (Mikhail Prokhorov) who all but flipped his management team a blank check to spruce up the roster.

On the court, the Nets' 49 victories were the second-most since they entered the NBA in 1976 and their best finish since 2005-06. They're back in the playoffs for the first time in six years with a coach, P.J. Carlesimo, who seems to have gotten it right back on the East Coast after long-ago stints in Oregon and California.

Then there are the Bulls, for whom this season never really got much traction. It was all about waiting for Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP who went down in the playoff opener last April. Other than some teasing warm-up sessions before games and speculation from behind closed doors, Rose has been largely absent and a non-factor.

Worse, his failure to play in the 2012-13 regular season -- contrary to an initial timeline that had him coming back in late February or March -- moved the goal posts for the Bulls, making the workload dicier for others. Other injuries compounded their problems, and after two years under coach Tom Thibodeau in which they nailed down the East's No. 1 seed, the Bulls are playing from below now, seeded fifth, lacking momentum and toting barely any expectations at all.

NBA Playoff Picture

Look a little closer and the similarities reveal themselves. Both these teams feel neglected and overlooked, the Nets playing in the shadow of a much-improved Knicks team and the Bulls seeing their championship window taken over by Miami. In relative terms, both Chicago and Brooklyn overachieved -- losing both Avery Johnson and Jay-Z has to rank close to playing without Rose, doesn't it?

Injuries have defined much of their seasons, with toughness and defense filling in for both teams. They aim to disrupt their opponents defensively while scoring just enough to eke out victories -- Brooklyn ranked 28th in the NBA in pace at 88.8, while Chicago was marginally better, 89.3 and 27th.

You want artistry and pace, go watch Denver-Golden State. If you stick with Brooklyn-Chicago, you're going to get gritty, grindy and grimy. With Reggie Evans, Jerry Stackhouse, Keith Bogans and Gerald Wallace, the Nets would be heavy favorites if the court were set up in an alley or had hockey boards around it. But the Bulls can counter with Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler and pound-for-pound threat Nate Robinson. This series might lead the first round in flagrant fouls if the refs aren't careful.

Anticipating the matchup before it became official, Carlesimo said: "We're a similar team to Chicago. It would be a beat-it-up, inside, more of a half-court, whichever-team's-gonna-defend-better, whichever-team's-going-to-rebound-better [series]. ... Offense will be tough to come by."

To which Thibodeau most likely grunted something, setting the tone perfectly.

Five quick questions (and answers)

Bob Ryan: East Playoff Preview

1. So which is it: Derrick Rose, in or out? Most likely out. If he did play, it would be like Willis Reed, 1970, and then some. But the Bulls never would forgive themselves if he got reinjured now rather than waiting till October. Nor would their fans.

1. So which is it: Derrick Rose, in or out? Most likely out. If he did play, it would be like Willis Reed, 1970, and then some. But the Bulls never would forgive themselves if he got reinjured now rather than waiting till October. Nor would their fans.

Starting lineups
Nets Pos Bulls
Deron Williams G Kirk Hinrich
Joe Johnson G Marco Belinelli
Brook Lopez C Joakim Noah
Gerald Wallace F Luol Deng
Reggie Evans F Carlos Boozer

2.Which Deron Williams shows up? Williams didn't thrive against the Bulls in the regular season (19.8 ppg, 41.5 FG%) but his post-All Star tear will make life tough for multiple Chicago counterparts.

3. Who wins the clash of All-Star centers? Hey, tune in. We're not telling. But the winner of this matchup could dictate the series.

4. Does P.J. Carlesimo's job status hang on this round? It shouldn't. His 37-16 after replacing Avery Johnson should have whacked that "interim" label by now.

5. So the pressure is on ...? Brooklyn. The Nets know that Prokhorov's lofty, needless deadline of a title in five years is getting closer every day. Chicago is more interested in slinking into the offseason and getting to October ASAP.

When the Nets have the ball ...

It's true that the Nets try to get a couple of their frontcourt guys -- Lopez and Evans -- started early by feeding them the ball. Lopez actually thrives that way (anything Evans puts on the board is gravy). But the Brooklyn offense is driven by its backcourt and particularly Williams. His resurgence over the final third of the season (22.9 ppg, 8.0 apg, 42.0 3FG%) has been due to healthier legs and some weight loss, leading to greater explosiveness all over the floor. Joe Johnson remains a sharpshooting threat in an overall dropoff season.

The Bulls have to treat Williams the way other teams treat Rose, sending multiple defenders at him to choke off lanes and nudge the ball from his hands. Making sure someone stays close when it swings back to him on the arc, that will be the big test. Up front, Chicago is confident in Noah's defense on Lopez, with Taj Gibson a viable alternative. Deng or super-soph Jimmy Buter might be pestering Johnson.

When the Bulls have the ball ...

On the Bulls' to-do list for every game, actually scoring points is one of those chores they keep skipping, attending to just about everything else first because that task is so unpleasant. When your attack is predicated on Derrick Rose wreaking havoc and he's not around, it's no different from shoving a stick into gears already in need of oil. Chicago tries for side-to-side movement, the ball moving more than the players, and gets deep into the shot clock on almost every possession.

The Nets don't get much offense out of their forwards, but Wallace and Evans make up for it defensively. That's key vs. Chicago. As brawny as Boozer is, he drifts farther out against consistently physical matchups. Wallace has the foot speed and tenacity to annoy Deng start to finish.

In the clutch

Joe Johnson still is the most gifted shooter in this series, but he slipped in all his percentages the final two months and averaged only 13.0 ppg against the Bulls. Nate Robinson is a thrill ride, all highs and lows with little in between, but Chicago has embraced its bargain with this li'l devil.

Wild cards

Ten years in, blue-collar Reggie Evans had his best season yet, including nine games of 20 rebounds or more and eight scoring in double figures. Teams focus so much on his defense and elbows that they sometimes overlook the skill stuff.

Noah was the key to Chicago's first-round exit last year -- the Bulls might have survived Rose's blown ACL against Philadelphia if not for the ugly ankle sprain Noah suffered a few days later. He figures to be a key again, based on how well he and the trainers manage his plantar fasciitis pain. He is the Bulls' motor.


The series in the regular season went Chicago's way, 3-1, but that matters less now than health and momentum and who's available to step up. The Bulls haven't done much with home court anyway -- 24-17 vs. 21-20 on the road -- and their last two playoff exits came in spite of it. Brooklyn might be exhilarated over its first taste of the playoffs in the borough, but this is going to be a mud-pit series that plays right into Thibodeau's hands. Bulls in six.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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