The 2013 NBA playoffs become even more compelling Saturday when the Brooklyn Nets host the Chicago Bulls at 8 p.m. ET in the postseason's first Game 7.
It has been a roller-coaster series thus far, with Brooklyn starting off strong in Game 1 only to drop three straight to Chicago. Then the Nets battled past an injury-plagued Bulls squad twice to force a seventh skirmish.
Tom Thibodeau will be severely shorthanded when his crew takes the court.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Kirk Hinrich (bruised calf) and Luol Deng (viral flu) are unlikely to play. Meanwhile, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson are playing through flu-like symptoms, Joakim Noah is still hampered by plantar fasciitis and Derrick Rose is still in street clothes.
Can Chicago overcome these setbacks and stun the Nets at Barclays Center?
Much of the game hinges on what Nate Robinson can do on both ends of the floor. His shot selection and defense on Deron Williams will be critical.
Robinson has posted 17.8 points per game in the series, and he's averaging 19 points and six assists since Hinrich was sidelined. When he takes balanced shots in rhythm or attacks the hoop, he's deadly. When he tries to do too much, it's a bit dicier.
Conversely, D-Will needs to take advantage of his offensive mismatch against the much smaller Robinson. In Game 6, he shot the ball poorly but dished 11 assists and made enough plays to lift Brooklyn.
He's the most talented player on either team, so P.J. Carlesimo and the entire borough of Brooklyn are counting on him to generate offense, especially in the pick-and-roll with Brook Lopez.
At this point in the series, the Nets bench is considerably deeper. In the past two games, the Bulls' reserves have been outscored 59-27.
Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli have stepped up and logged heavy minutes, but there's almost no one behind them to keep the pace. Brooklyn, on the other hand, has backups like Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson who can give the offense a boost.
For these two clubs, winning the points-in-the-paint battle doesn't necessarily secure the ballgame, but a big night from Lopez and Blatche could shut the door on the series. When the two are on the floor together, Carlesimo has loads of schematic flexibility.
This game will be a tight one for two reasons: Chicago has the capability of playing sound team defense no matter who's on the floor, and Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson, in particular, have shown tremendous heart.
However, Brooklyn has a significant manpower advantage, one that allows it to play at different paces and create matchup issues. As long as Gerald Wallace can knock down a couple open triples (he's a much-improved 6-of-12 in his last three games), the offense won't stall.
And even with Joe Johnson banged up, he has still managed to be a factor in this series.
If Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah can consistently get high-percentage opportunities close to the bucket, Chicago will have a decent shot at stealing the win. But Brooklyn has more healthy and versatile personnel.
Prediction: Nets 93, Bulls 85