The New Jersey Nets blew the Chicago Bulls off the floor in Game 1, racing out to a 106-89 rout and looking poised to sweep an injury-ravaged Chicago team out of the playoffs. In Game 2, the Bulls returned the favor, winning 90-82 and regaining home-court advantage in what has suddenly become an extremely competitive first-round series. On Thursday, the two teams meet up for a Game 3 that could decisively tilt the series one way or the other.
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Odds: Chicago by -3.5
Which Deron Williams shows up?
One of the biggest differences between Games 1 and 2 was the play of Williams, the Nets franchise player. On Saturday, he looked like the All-NBA caliber point guard that Brooklyn gave a max contract in the offseason, with 22 points and seven assists on 9-of-15 shooting. It was the culmination of a late-season resurgence that had pushed Williams back into the ranks of the NBA's elite point guards after an extremely disappointing start to the season. On Monday, Williams looked like the underwhelming player who had been heavily criticized for most of his time in Brooklyn, with only eight points and 10 assists on 1-of-9 shooting.
Williams is the key to the Nets offense; they won't be able to win if he's not averaging nearly a double-double of 20 points and 10 assists. While P.J. Carlesimo might try to involve him in more pick-and-rolls early and push the pace to get him a few easy baskets, the ultimate adjustment will need to come from Williams. He has the ball in his hands for most of the game and is the team's primary decision-maker in the half-court. He has to be more efficient from the floor if Brooklyn is going to be able to regain home-court advantage by winning either Games 3 or 4 in Chicago.
How much will Joakim Noah be able to give?
While all eyes in Brooklyn will be on Williams, Noah is the most indispensable player for the Bulls in this series. After missing most of the last three weeks of the regular season with a foot injury, Noah came back in Game 1 and looked like a shell of himself. Few would doubt his toughness as he hobbled his way around the court, but he didn't seem capable of giving Chicago many effective minutes. In Game 2, while clearly still nowhere near 100 percent, he was able to put together a solid 25-minute outing, with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-of-8 shooting.
Tom Thibodeau will have to resist the temptation to stick with Noah too long, as he's absolutely essential to their half-court defense, particularly to match up with Brook Lopez. Without Noah, Nazr Mohammed is the only Bulls big man with the size to bang with the Nets' 7'0, 265-pound All-Star on the low block. While Mohammed acquitted himself better in Game 2, Thibodeau would undoubtedly prefer to limit his minutes as much as possible, as he isn't nearly the threat Noah is on the offensive end of the floor.
Will the Nets make an adjustment in their starting lineup?
Brooklyn has been carrying two offensive nonentities, Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans, at the forward positions for most of the season. One of the key adjustments for Chicago in Game 2 was essentially ignoring them on defense and forcing the Nets to play 3-on-5, which put an incredible amount of pressure on Brooklyn's trio of offensive stars. Neither Wallace nor Evans could make them pay, with Wallace scoring two points on 1-of-7 shooting and Evans putting up four points on 2-of-3 shooting.
The obvious adjustment for Carlesimo would be finding more playing time for Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson, the two Brooklyn reserves who've had the most success against the Bulls' aggressive defense. However, Wallace and Evans are the team's two most consistent defensive players and rebounders and removing them from the lineup could have a domino effect on the Nets defense. Nevertheless, Carlesimo may have no choice on Thursday, as Brooklyn simply can't afford to get such little production from two spots on the floor, especially with Joe Johnson being a game-time decision while he struggles with plantar fasciitis.