The Brooklyn Nets responded under immense pressure and pulled off a convincing 110-91 win on Monday night to avoid elimination, but the weight for Brooklyn to bear will be even heavier on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, TNT) as the series shifts back to the United Center. The Chicago Bulls aren't completely healthy -- Kirk Hinrich (bruised calf) has ditched his walking boot, though his status for Game 6 is still shaky -- but they are a perfect 4-0 at home against the Nets this season.
The Nets put themselves in this tough position by blowing a lead to a banged-up Bulls team in Game 4. They are still on the brink of elimination despite winning Game 5, and only eight teams have ever climbed out of a 3-1 series hole (Chicago now leads the series, 3-2). It's a tall task for a very inconsistent team.
Who will guard Deron Williams?
If Kirk Hinrich is able to play, he's the obvious answer. If the veteran guard is out, or can only play limited minutes, then the issue gets a bit messier. Jason Patt of Blog a Bull admits that Hinrich has been essential to Chicago's success in this series:
I've been hard on Hinrich all year, but it's clear how much the Bulls need him in this series. Nate Robinson had little chance stopping Deron Williams' penetration in Game 5, and it threw the rest of the Bulls' defense out of whack. It also likely hurt their rebounding, as the penetration forced the Bulls' bigs to help more and took them out of good rebounding position. Although the necessary effort wasn't there either.
The Bulls' offense was mostly fine without Hinrich, but Carlos Boozer certainly missed the presence of his usual starting point guard. Hinrich is really good at getting Boozer involved, and the big man was only able to muster eight shots in the Game 5 loss. Nate did have a nice game with 20 points and eight assists, but he needs to do a better job getting Boozer going.
Some people thought Jimmy Butler would get a chance to lock down D-Will in Game 5, but Tom Thibodeau called on Nate Robinson most of the time. Robinson didn't do a great job, so it will be interesting to see if Thibs alters the match-ups when Hinrich isn't on the floor. Butler gives up some quickness to Williams, but his length could cause problems for Brooklyn's point guard. There is no easy substitute for Hinrich's understanding of the defensive scheme or his ability to anticipate moves, so it may be up to Thibodeau to mix-and-match.
What will the Nets get from Joe Johnson?
Joe Johnson has posted a respectable line of 16.2 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting through five playoff games, but he's not quite himself at the moment. As noted on NetsDaily, Johnson is basically playing on one leg. He was pretty blunt with reporters on Wednesday: "I'm basically just a decoy, spot-up shooter. I can't really do a whole lot." Johnson has only taken four shots in the restricted area the entire series (195 minutes), and his 1.1 free throw attempts per game stands out as a sign he's not playing at full strength.
The aging offensive star has played 39 minutes per game, but he's surprisingly been at his best (relatively speaking) at the beginning and end of contests. His overall mark of 29.6 percent shooting from three-point range speaks to tired legs, yet his fourth-quarter conversion rate of 42.9 percent from deep is the best of any period.
The second and third quarters have been especially problematic. He has shot 41.7 percent and 38.5 percent from the field in those two quarters, respectively. If he can step out of that sinkhole in Game 6, the Nets may be able to produce more consistent offense and keep things close.
Can Nate Robinson carry Chicago's offense?
Nate Robinson injected himself directly into the bloodstream of this series with his heroic performance in Game 4, and now everyone is waiting to see what he does next. Nate has shot an insane 60.5 percent from the field in the second half of games during this series, so if Chicago needs scoring down the stretch they will likely put the ball in Robinson's hands and live with the results. Still, Carlos Boozer has been an underrated offensive option for the Bulls all season long. If Robinson isn't hitting his jump shots, expect the Bulls to funnel things through Boozer.
Game time: 8 p.m. ET
National TV: TNT
Local TV: Comcast Sports Net Chicago and the YES Network
Odds: The Bulls are 1½ - point favorites at home, according to Oddsshark.com.