After looking like playoff roadkill in Game 1 of their matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, the Chicago Bulls picked themselves up off the pavement, cranked up the defensive intensity and are now in position to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in Game 4 on Saturday.
With Deron Williams unable to do damage in the lane and Joe Johnson struggling with plantar fasciitis, the Nets suddenly look much more vulnerable than they did just a few days ago.
Chicago, on the other hand, has cooked up a simple recipe to stymie Brooklyn's vanilla offensive schemes and now appears to be the favorite in the series.
Will Brooklyn solve Chicago's aggressive defensive style, or will the Bulls pound the frustrated Nets into submission?
Time: Saturday, April 27, 2:00 p.m. ET
Where: United Center; Chicago IL
Series Record: Bulls 2 - Nets 1
Key Storyline: Can the Nets Find a Way to Score?
During the regular season, Brooklyn was a pretty darn efficient offensive team. Its rating of 105 points per 100 possessions was good enough to narrowly slide into the league's top 10.
But because the Nets rely so heavily on simple offensive sets in a slow-paced, half-court game, they've proved to be particularly vulnerable to the Bulls' aggressive defensive style. As Chicago has overloaded the strong side and packed the paint, Brooklyn hasn't been able to rely on secondary scorers on the weak side.
What's worse, the Nets often don't even swing the ball across the court, which is just about the only way to have a chance to catch the Bulls in a compromising defensive situation.
The Nets don't have to scrap their isolation or pick-and-roll sets, but they do need to avoid having them result in low-percentage jump shots.
One of the enduring highlights from Game 3 was a string of three straight made jumpers by Brook Lopez from the top of the key. Of course, what you couldn't see was the slow smile creeping across Tom Thibodeau's lips every time Lopez fired away.
Chicago was more than happy to permit that shot, and in fact, has built many of its defensive principles around the idea that mid-range jumpers (especially from big men) are what it wants to allow.
Brooklyn's strengths are its offensive rebounding prowess (third-best in the league) and the one-on-one game of Williams. And they're not utilizing either of those advantages by running pick-and-pop plays that result in jump shots from a center who ought to be rolling hard to the middle.
Ideally, Brooklyn would embrace an offense that relies less on the dribble and more on effective ball rotation around the perimeter. But it hasn't gone that route all year, so unless Williams can will his way into the middle or Lopez can set up shop on the block, Brooklyn is going to struggle to produce points.
Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Nets: None listed
Bulls: Derrick Rose (knee, out indefinitely)
Projected Starting Lineups
Nets: Deron Williams (PG), Joe Johnson (SG), Gerald Wallace (SF), Reggie Evans (PF), Brook Lopez (C)
Bulls: Kirk Hinrich (PG), Jimmy Butler (SG), Luol Deng (SF), Carlos Boozer (PF), Joakim Noah (C)
The Nets Will Win If...
Gerald Wallace finds a role (and/or a jump shot).
According to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, Wallace said after Game 3, "I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you my role now...I don’t have a clue what my role is on this team."
Well, for starters, Wallace's role certainly hasn't been that of a perimeter shooter. And that's kind of the problem. His jumper has been broken for weeks now, and what the Nets desperately need is someone to knock down a shot from the outside.
Wallace may not be that guy, but one way he can contribute on offense is to use his athleticism to attack the paint. He needs to be making hard cuts off the ball and crashing the offensive glass whenever possible. The Bulls aren't going to do much in transition, so he's got no reason to hang back as a defensive safety.
We've covered the Nets' biggest problem already: an offensive style that plays right into Chicago's hands. But short of a total overhaul, an increased contribution from Wallace would be the next best thing.
If he can bring some energy, and maybe even a made jumper or two, Wallace can be the difference in Game 4.
The Bulls Will Win If...
They knock off their season-long Jekyll-and-Hyde act.
The Bulls have won three games in a row just one time since Jan. 26. During the final three months of the regular season, Chicago had a habit of looking spectacular for a game or two, but then losing back-to-back contests to teams like the lowly Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors (which they did on April 7 and 9).
You'd think that a team whose calling card is a wickedly competitive defense wouldn't be subject to such inconsistent play, but the Bulls have piled up just as many surprising losses to inferior opponents as they have impressive wins against good ones.
In other words, it's almost impossible to know which version of the Bulls is going to show up from game to game.
Fortunately for Chicago, it knows that all it has to do is maintain its proven defensive scheme and hope for a little bit of complementary offense in order to win. The Nets are the team that has to adjust, so the Bulls can simply sit back and wait to see what changes their opponents make.
Chicago is a deeply flawed offensive team, but its defense looks more than capable of holding strong against a Nets club that is suddenly reeling in its own right.
The third time hasn't been the charm for the Bulls very often this year, but if they can simply maintain the kind of effort they've put forth over the last two games, they'll be in good shape.
The Nets are desperate; that much was visible in the waning minutes of Game 3 as they made a frenzied effort to avoid a 2-1 series hole.
That attempt came up short, but you can bet that Brooklyn is going to come out with renewed urgency from the moment the ball goes up in Game 4.
Unfortunately, the Nets don't need more effort; they need some fresh ideas.
The Bulls have the Brooklyn offense totally solved, and it's unlikely that P.J. Carlesimo is going to come up with an overhaul thorough enough to change that. As long as Williams has to generate all of the Nets' offense through isolations and a predictable pick-and-roll game, the Bulls are going to dominate.
Johnson is coming off of the worst regular season of his career and his cranky foot has contributed to a 6-of-16 shooting performance from long range in the series. He's probably not capable of serving as the floor-stretcher that the Nets need.
And neither is anyone else on the roster.
Plus, if the Nets continue to get the offensively anemic performances from Reggie Evans and Wallace that they've gotten so far, Williams won't have anyplace to go with the ball except to Lopez, who seemed content to shoot jumpers in Game 3.
Everywhere the Nets turn, the Bulls are there, clogging up their predictable, ineffective offensive sets.
Look for more of the same in Game 4. Unless, of course, the Bulls pull one of the maddening no-shows they perfected during an up-and-down season.
Prediction: Bulls 88, Nets 84
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