Even with no Luol Deng, no Kirk Hinrich, and a case of the flu that had Nate Robinson throwing up in a trash can on the sidelines, the Chicago Bulls still had an opportunity to end this series in Game 6. But the Brooklyn Nets held on to a lead that was never more than 10, keeping the lead after the first quarter and winning, 95-92, to move the series back to Brooklyn for a decisive Game 7.
Joakim Noah forced a tie-up on Deron Williams with 3.6 seconds remaining down three, a tip Noah should obviously have won. But the Bulls still had the unenviable position of setting up the rare jump-ball-to-immediate-three-pointer. They couldn't, as Joe Johnson grabbed the ball and ran out the final seconds.
Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson led the way with 17 points apiece, with Williams adding 11 assists. But none scored more than four points in the second half, as the Nets couldn't extend their lead against a hampered Bulls squad further than 10 points. Marco Belinelli, a shooting guard forced into a playmaking role for most due to a lack of depth, had a game-high 22 points and seven assists, while Noah had 14 points and 15 rebounds.
The Nets had every advantage in this one. They started this series playing against a team without Derrick Rose and with a hampered Noah. They played Game 6 against a team without Rose, a still-hampered Noah, but also without Deng and Hinrich -- out for his his second straight game with a thigh bruise -- and with Robinson and Taj Gibson gutting out the same flu that hampered Deng.
That's the starting point guard, backup point guard, and starting small forward out, with the starting center, a reserve guard and power forward not up to full speed.
Throw in some disqualifications -- Gibson would foul out after just 18 minutes, Carlos Boozer in the game's final minute -- and players who had no business being on the floor in the decisive moments of an NBA playoff game in 2013 were on the floor. Rip Hamilton saw his first action since Game 1 in the first half. Marquis Teague, a rookie who Tom Thibodeau rarely played even in the regular season, got fourth-quarter minutes. Nazr Mohammed played the final few minutes after Gibson and Boozer's exits. This team would not have been blamed for failing to compete.
But somehow, they did. With all their point guards problematic, and Deng out, the team started Robinson alongside Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler, who served as de facto point guards with Robinson spending most of the first half at the two. They performed admirably: Belinelli would have 22 points and seven assists, playoff career highs for the Italian national best known for his shooting touch, and Butler, known for his perimeter defensive skills, managed a season-high six assists to go along with 17 points. Robinson would return to ahe playmaking role for most of the second half, recording 18 points.
With no depth available, each player in the Bulls starting lineup -- out of position, mismatched, whatever -- would finish with at least 14 points. It wasn't enough, as the Bulls wouldn't lead after the first quarter.
Williams had an impressive first half -- 14 points, eight assists -- feasting on Robinson's defense. In the second, he wasn't able to operate as easily, and didn't look to change that often. He'd add only three points -- all free throws -- and three assists in the second half. Johnson would also disappear, turning a 10-point first quarter into just 17 points total. The Nets survived a stretch where they missed 12 straight field goals to stay in the lead late.
The Nets did a great job of taking care of the ball, committing only nine turnovers, but cost themselves by failing to hit at the line: they shot 22-for-33 from the line.
The Nets took an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Chicago wouldn't quit, bringing the lead back down to one possession as some Brooklyn turnovers led to Bulls points. Marco Belinelli would come back from a swatted drive attempt by drilling a three off a baseline out-of-bounds, setting up a tense final two minutes.
Andray Blatche, who had been a killer for the Nets in Game 5, spun in an odd drive to the hoop to go up 92-88, but Robinson would answer back with an 18-footer. The ball would come to Blatche again, who was blocked by Noah. Robinson's drive to the hoop ended without a good shot and a loose ball foul on Carlos Boozer, leading to Blatche free throws, and Robinson would fall to the ground holding his arm.
The foul was Boozer's sixth, and with Gibson already fouled out, the Bulls had to rely on Nazr Mohammed, who had played well earlier in the series, but had only logged two minutes. Blatche missed the first, and hit the second to make the score 93-90. Mohammed would pay immediate dividends, scoring an uncontested layup off a quick pass from Joakim Noah when the Bulls double-teamed Robinson.
The Nets made the questionable decision to inbound to Blatche -- 2-for-4 on the night -- with 20 seconds left, and Nate Robinson applied the foul. But the ice water ran in Blatche's veins, drilling the pair. The Bulls final play saw some trips and a pass that skidded out of bounds off a Brooklyn foot, Belinelli's three-point attempt would go long, and Noah stepped out of bounds attempting to retrieve a rebound, allowing Brooklyn the win.