The Chicago Bulls became the first team this postseason to win a game on the road as they evened up the series with the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night. If you were cryogenically frozen then thawed out after Game 2 and were just shown the Nets' stats from both playoff games, you would be certain that an entirely different team played the Bulls each night.
Brooklyn scored 106 points on 55.8 percent shooting in Game 1, followed by 82 points on 35.4 percent in the second game. The Nets trailed by just one point at halftime on Monday before getting demolished in the third quarter, 22-11. Poor third quarters have been a bane for them this season, with none worse than their five-point effort against the San Antonio Spurs on New Year's Eve.
Brooklyn lost three of four to the Bulls during the regular season, including both games in Chicago. It must steal a road victory to avoid a perilous 3-1 series deficit, and answering the Bulls' defensive adjustments from Game 2 will be of paramount importance.
Game 3 Time: Thursday, April 25, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: United Center, Chicago, IL
Series Record: Even at 1-1
TV: NBA TV
Game 3 Key Storyline: Who Are the Brooklyn Nets?
In Game 1, Deron Williams scored 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, dished seven dimes and snagged three steals; Gerald Wallace added 16 points on 5-of-7 to go with six boards and two blocks. Brooklyn's domineering victory put it securely in the driver's seat for the series.
Then D-Will and Crash fell off the face of the planet in Game 2. They combined for 10 points on 2-of-16 shooting as Brooklyn's offense shifted from fantastic to futile.
Certainly, Joakim Noah's ability to log 25 minutes boosted the Bulls defensively, but coach Tom Thibodeau made all the necessary adjustments, holding Brooklyn to 24 fewer points in the second game.
The Nets have suffered from multiple personality disorder all season, looking like world-beaters one night and Keystone Cops the next. If that inconsistency persists, their summer vacation will start before the calendar turns to May.
Series Star(s) So Far
With the series tied at a game apiece, I'm going to chop this award in half. Both teams have gotten tremendous play up front, with Carlos Boozer and Brook Lopez leading the way for their respective squads.
The Booze Cruise has averaged 19 points (on 56.3 percent shooting), 10 rebounds and three assists, while Lopez is posting 21 points (on 48.3 percent), five boards and three blocks in his first playoff appearances.
Both big men have been excellent so far, and they must sustain their strong play to keep the series close.
Projected Starting Lineups
Brooklyn: Deron Williams, PG; Joe Johnson, SG; Gerald Wallace, SF; Reggie Evans, PF; Brook Lopez, C
Chicago: Kirk Hinrich, PG; Jimmy Butler, SG; Luol Deng, SF; Carlos Boozer, PF; Joakim Noah, C
Nets Injury Report (via ESPN.com)
Bulls Injury Report
Derrick Rose (knee), out; Joakim Noah (foot), day-to-day
Nets Will Win If...
They can hold down the Bulls' frontcourt.
Boozer, Noah and Luol Deng each recorded double-doubles in Game 2 and the Nets could not stop them. Brooklyn has the personnel to contain Chicago's three-headed monster, but it will need to be a collaborative effort between the starters and the reserves.
Lopez provides an elite shot-blocking presence, but he's weak on the boards. Wallace is a high-motor defender and will need to force Deng into more nights like Saturday (six points on 3-of-11 from the field).
Reggie Evans has been starting at the 4, and his primary capability (other than flopping and committing hard fouls) lies in squeegeeing everything off the glass. This season, he led the league by a wide margin in games of 20-plus rebounds (nine) and rebounding percentage (via ESPN.com).
Kris Humphries and Andray Blatche offer size and strength from the bench, offering competent scoring and defense. Brooklyn will need these five to try and wear down Chicago's Big Three after getting manhandled on Monday.
The Bulls' backcourt has been typified by erratic scoring and poor shooting all season long, so the Nets must try to force the offensive burden onto Kirk Hinrich (37.7 percent shooting this season), Marco Belinelli (39.5 percent) and Nate Robinson (43.3 percent) at the perimeter.
Bulls Will Win If...
They can replicate their team defense from Game 2.
Hinrich draped himself all over Deron Williams, holding Brooklyn's marquee player to just one measly field goal. Deng and Jimmy Butler made mince meat of Wallace, limiting him to two points, while starting PF Reggie Evans totaled four points opposite Boozer. Even Nazr Mohammed played well in his 18 minutes.
Brooklyn displayed solid ball movement, netting 22 assists on its 29 field goals, but it couldn't hit the ocean from a dinghy. Its shooting percentage dropped by more than 20 points from Game 1. The Bulls must continue their strong closeouts on Brooklyn, forcing them to drain contested jumpers.
As the old saw goes, the best offense is a good defense. The Bulls proved that on Monday. Now, their defense comes charging into Game 3.
With turnovers, rebounding and foul shooting all about even through two meetings, the key to the games in Chicago will be which Nets offense and which Bulls defense shows up.
If Williams and Wallace don't play like dried up corn husks for Games 3 and 4, Brooklyn has a good shot to keep the series even when it heads back to Barclays Center. The Nets' 28-point drop off from Game 1 doomed them on Monday, with Joe Johnson missing a dozen of his 18 shots and Lopez provided their only reliable offense.
After two games with absolutely no consistency, Game 3 will be a prize fight as both teams now have a feel for their opponent. Brooklyn won't shoot 35 percent again and will have spent three days game-planning for the resurgent Noah.
Chicago's 24-17 home record was the second-worst among the 16 playoff teams, but it has all the momentum heading into Thursday's tilt. The Bulls will take a 2-1 series lead, but they'll need to gird themselves for a desperate Nets team in an all-important Game 4.
Prediction: Chicago Bulls 88, Brooklyn Nets 83