by Krissy Harper / @CSNKrisHarper
“More so it was about who won the battle—who wanted it more than the next team. They know what we are going to run and we know what they are going to run. It’s about who came out there and executed the most down the stretch,” Joe Johnson said in a post-game press conference after the Brooklyn Nets’ 95-92 win over the Chicago Bulls.
Johnson previously characterized himself as a “decoy” due to his bout with plantar fasciitis, but he proved to be more than an distraction on Thursday night. He finished the game with 17 points and logged the second-most minutes on the team at 38, as the Nets extended the first-round Playoff series to a Game 7.
The Nets attacked the rim from the opening tip, getting to the paint with ease. The Bulls’ defense couldn’t stop the attack, allowing 33 points in the first quarter alone.
“It pretty much presented itself. Me and DWill understood that we had to get us off to a great start—being aggressive and making plays,” Johnson noted. “It wasn’t necessarily about getting our shot off or getting off offensively, it was about just coming out and trying to make a statement early.”
This mentality was seemingly lost on the Nets after their 17-point Game 1 win. After quickly falling into a 3-1 series deficit, the team was criticized for a lack of resolve and will to win. But after fighting back to even the series at 3-3, the Nets show no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“We just have to keep playing; it’s not over with,” Johnson said. “We still have a game left in this series. And of course I think us having home-court advantage will definitely play a part. We just have to come out and be aggressive from the start to finish.”
The Nets’ bench has stepped up at crucial moments of late. Center Andray Blatche is averaging double-digits in scoring, and in Game 6 hit two clutch free throws to put the Nets up three with 19.2 seconds remaining. According to Johnson, performances like last night are anything but unusual for the talented backup.
“[Blatche] was big for us. Our bench has been playing pretty well pretty much the whole series,” Johnson said. “Having Blatche and Brook [Lopez] in the game at the same time is a great combination. Two centers who can really score the basketball and make plays; Blatche is a good free-throw shooter and he was able to come through in the clutch for us down the stretch.”
Injuries are a dark plague in the Playoffs, and the Bulls have seemingly been hit harder than most. With Kirk Hinrich nursing a calf injury, Luol Deng spending a night in the emergency room, Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson suffering flu-like symptoms, Joakim Noah’s continued battle with plantar fasciitis, and Derrick Rose rehabbing a torn ACL, for the Bulls to still have the energy or even enough bodies to play is a testament in itself, but Johnson sees the situation differently.
“Injuries are part of the game; they happen,” he said. “We got some guys beat up as well but are able to kind of play through it and just suck it up for the sake of the team. It happens so we just have to keep working hard no matter who is out there playing for those guys. They are still NBA players and they are still guys who can play.”
Saturday night at the Barclays Center will be a battle of wills especially for the short-handed Bulls.
“It’s beyond my imagination on how it’s going to be, but it will definitely be a frenzy in there. I think their sixth man will definitely come into play and more than anything I know Brooklyn will be ready,” Johnson promised.
With so much on the line, Game 7 is sure to be a mix of attitude and passion. And while it would have been ideal for the Bulls to end the Nets’ season at the Madhouse, power forward Reggie Evans admitted he always believed the series would not end in Chicago.
“Not to sound arrogant but deep down inside, I knew we were going back to Brooklyn,” Evans said.