The Chicago Bulls are trying to hang in despite bangs, bruises and illnesses, but the Brooklyn Nets lead 60-54 at the half, behind 39 combined points from Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez.
The Bulls' injury issues are getting insane. Kirk Hinrich remains out with his thigh bruise. Luol Deng was unable to go with a really bad case of the flu, leaving the arena shortly after tipoff. That left the Bulls without two starters, their two best perimeter defenders. They ran out a lineup featuring Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler, giving playing time to rarely used rookie Marquis Teague and old vet Rip Hamilton, who started for most of the year but fell out of the rotation after injuries.
But there was still a game to be played. staying with the Nets for most of the first quarter and cutting the Bulls' lead to 48-47 at one point. But then Williams began cooking, going on a 12-2 run. The Bulls would close the half with four unanswered to make the lead six at the break, but the Nets have seemed the team in charge against the shorthanded Bulls for most of the way.
It's a surprisingly high-scoring affair considering the defensive nature of the series thus far, with five players in double-digits: Williams, Wallace and Lopez for the Nets, and Marco Belinelli and Carlos Boozer for the Bulls. Steve Von Horn asked three questions about the game and here are the early answers:
Who will guard Deron Williams?
The responsibility went to Nate Robinson at first, and a sick Nate Robinson at that. When Williams attacked it worked, absolutely torching the diminutive guard. He backed him down for two easy buckets, pulled up for a 16-footer, and with the shot clock winding down, drilled a three that Robinson contested too hard, finishing for a four-point play. He scored well, but he was even better as a passer, with eight assists in the half.
When the Nets played smaller lineups featuring C.J. Watson or MarShon Brooks, Robinson would guard them, allowing Jimmy Butler - a strong wing defender - to pick up Williams. That worked well, forcing him into two misses. When Robinson was out at the end of the half with foul trouble, the rookie Teague would try to check Williams, leading to a foul.
What will the Nets get from Joe Johnson?
A lot. Ignore the plantar fasciitis. Johnson had his whole arsenal of long twos working. When the Bulls started hot, Johnson was there to answer back, scoring ten points on 5-of-6 from the field in the first quarter. He'd also drill a three in the second quarter to finish the half with an efficient 13 points.
Can Nate Robinson carry Chicago's offense?
Wait, wait, wait, you're seriously not going to believe this one. It was Marco Belinelli - Marco Belinelli! - who served as the catalyst for the Bulls early. Look, man, I like Marco Belinelli. He's always been an interesting 6'5-ish scorer with a decent ability to handle and a really strong jump shot. And he hit a few game-winners this year!
But he doesn't often get put in the scenario he was in tonight. Going up against larger players in Gerald Wallace and Andray Blache, he controlled the ball from the point, creating plays off the dribble and finding guys with some decent passes. Belinell had 13 points to go along with his six assists, all of which came in the first quarter.
As for Robinson, he was more of an off guard, handling the ball sometimes but generally waiting for Belinelli to do something, hitting 2-of-4 threes and crossing over Williams before bouncing off him for an and-one bank shot. Jimmy Butler also had five assists from a point-small-forwardy role.