In Game 6, the Chicago Bulls found themselves riddled by injury and illness, yet the Brooklyn Nets barely hung on for the three-point victory.
The depleted Nate Robinson couldn't convert a pair of tough layups in the final two minutes with the Bulls trailing by two. Andray Blatche beat the shot clock with a bank shot off the backboard's highest point to push the lead to four, and Chicago couldn't complete the comeback.
Marco Belinelli hit one big three-pointer late in the fourth quarter, but after fighting through a screen, his game-tying attempt with seven ticks remaining sailed long and barely caught iron.
And that was how the Nets forced the first Game 7 in Brooklyn since the 1956 World Series. Even they were surprised, as Barclays Center had already scheduled a Rihanna concert for Saturday night (seriously).
After some negotiation, the concert was postponed, and the Nets will have a chance to thrill their home fans by earning a berth in the second round.
Game 7 Time: Saturday, May 4, 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
Series Record: Tied at 3-3
Game 7 Key Storyline: Can the Bulls Survive the Series?
Prior to Game 6, the team reported that Taj Gibson and Luol Deng were questionable due to some sort of illness. Though he was absent from the injury report, Nate Robinson had clearly contracted the sickness, too.
Robinson sat on the bench with a garbage can to receive his emesis (or "upchuck chunks" to the layman). Nate played in the game, as did Gibson, though the latter looked like death warmed up.
And both of them were feeling much better than Deng, who missed the game and actually had to get a spinal tap to check for meningitis.
USA TODAY Sports @USATODAYsports
Bulls' Luol Deng has spinal tap to test for meningitis: http://t.co/bkCCpdI3Sl (@JeffZillgitt)2013-5-3 06:03:30
Yikes. Hopefully he's OK, but his status for Saturday remains in great doubt.
Add to that Kirk Hinrich, who has been hobbling around since playing 60 minutes in Game 4; Joakim Noah is still dealing with pain from his plantar fasciitis. Overall, the Bulls were just a few fouls short of running out of players in Thursday's loss.
Despite fighting the Nets to the wire with a short-handed lineup, Chicago faces a huge uphill battle to nip Brooklyn at Barclays Center. Injury questions abound, and the only certainty in the series is that the Nets' Big Three will be on the court.
Chicago can't say the same, and they will need a combination of guts and luck if they want to see Round 2.
Series Star So Far: Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez enjoyed a fantastic regular season. The 10th overall pick from 2008 earned his first All-Star nod (barely) and justified the four-year, $61 million contract that Brooklyn handed him in the offseason.
And as good as Lopez's stats were during the regular season (19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game), he's been even better in the playoffs. The man in the middle for Brooklyn has led the charge on both offense and defense.
Lopez is posting 22.5 points, 7.2 boards and 3.2 blocks a night. At times, it has looked like Brook was filming a remake of Dikembe Mutombo's Geico commercial.
Projected Starting Lineups
Chicago: Nate Robinson, PG; Marco Belinelli, SG; Jimmy Butler, SF; Carlos Boozer, PF; Joakim Noah, C
Brooklyn: Deron Williams, PG; Joe Johnson, SG; Gerald Wallace, SF; Reggie Evans, PF; Brook Lopez, C
Bulls Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Luol Deng (illness), questionable; Kirk Hinrich (calf), doubtful; Derrick Rose (knee), out
Nets Injury Report
Bulls Will Win If...
They defend effectively and hold down Brooklyn's max-contract backcourt.
The Bulls' offense always seems to come together by piecemeal, and if Luol Deng is able to play, it will be a tremendous boon. Still, they nearly scratched out a victory without him in Game 6.
The bigger loss is actually Kirk Hinrich. He played for an hour in the Bulls' thrilling triple-overtime win and hasn't seen the court since.
While his scoring and shooting are hardly eye-popping, his defense can win games. Though he doesn't play shutdown D by any means, he's a very pesky defender who can disrupt plays with his high basketball IQ.
Hinrich brings a tenacity to the court that Chicago sorely missed against Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in Games 5 and 6. His absence puts a defensive burden upon Nate Robinson which the 5'9" guard cannot bear, especially not when losing vital fluids on the bench during timeouts.
According to Synergy, Robinson rated as the league's worst player with at least 300 plays defended (via ESPN). Belinelli's gifts are almost entirely on the offensive end. With Deng sitting out, Jimmy Butler can't lend as much help in the backcourt, and the Bulls don't seem to have the answer for Williams and Johnson.
In the two games Hinrich sat out, D-Will racked up 40 points and 21 assists. Johnson only scored 28 points over those two Brooklyn victories, but he has been solid in the clutch, much to the chagrin of Atlanta Hawks fans.
Either a Lazarus-esque return from Deng or a superb defensive effort from their short-handed cast will be needed to snag Game 7 on the road.
Nets Will Win If...
They rebound well and keep getting to the foul line.
In Game 6, Brooklyn outplayed Chicago in almost every facet of the game—turnovers, field-goal shooting, free-throw shooting, fast-break points and points in the paint—except offensive rebounding.
The Bulls grabbed 15 offensive boards to 10 for the Nets and attempted 10 more field goals (partly because of Brooklyn shooting 15 more free throws), which nearly handed the series to Chicago. Joakim Noah tallied nine rebounds on the offensive end, nearly equaling the total for the entire Nets team.
While Reggie Evans pulled down 15 boards to go with his two points, no other Brooklyn starter managed more than three rebounds. Fortunately for them, Andray Blatche snagged seven boards in 19 minutes, and even Kris Humphries got in on the action with four boards and six points.
Brooklyn will need a better effort in offensive rebounding to limit easy second-chance points. Brook Lopez has to pull down more than three boards, and Gerald Wallace needs to remember that his nickname is "Crash" and do so.
They also must continue getting to the line. Their 33 foul shots in Game 6 also got a host of Bulls into foul trouble down the stretch, severely threatening their short bench.
In franchise history, the Chicago Bulls are 0-6 in Game 7s on the road (via Sam Smith of Bulls.com).
After the fight they've shown in this series, I am extremely tempted to say that they can win their first ever Game 7 away from home, but they are riddled with injuries, and even the players on the court are walking wounded (Noah, Gibson and Robinson).
Even without Derrick Rose, if Chicago had the rest of their lineup fairly healthy, they would have already taken down the Nets.
But the combination of Brook Lopez and Deron Williams will be too much to bear for these Bulls. Brooklyn eked out the road win in Game 6 and own the all-important home-court advantage. They won by 19 at Barclays Center in Game 5, and on Saturday, they will cruise to Round 2.
Hardwood Paroxysm @HPbasketball
Hold on, doing some math. A 7 point lead, against the Bulls without Rose, Hinrich, Deng, .50*Noah...Nets would be... down 80 to Miami.2013-5-3 01:21:44
Too bad they'll face the Miami Heat when they get there.
Prediction: Nets 102, Bulls 92