By Russ Bengtson
In an overly long 82-game NBA season, what does a single loss mean? In most cases, nothing. In some cases—everything. Here’s what last night’s 106-97 road loss to the Nets meant for the Chicago Bulls:
A drop in playoff seeding from two to five. And instead of being able to reach the Eastern Conference Finals without facing the Heat OR Pistons (who would have had seven games to beat each other up before getting there themselves), now the Bulls will most likely have to beat both just to get there. As the two seed, they would have faced the reeling Wizards in the first round, then the winner of three/seven. As the five, they get to open the 2007 playoffs against the defending champion Heat, then the winner of one/eight.
Amazing what one loss can do.
The Bulls aren’t like every other team in the League. For starters, there are actually players in the locker room during pre-game media time. Not at the beginning, when it’s just Ben Wallace talking to ESPN’s sideline reporter, Tyrus Thomas working on a salad and Chris Duhon engrossed in his iPod. But as the session goes on, most of the guys stop and talk for a while. Big Ben, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng. They all sit and answer questions. Kirk Hinrich is the only starter that doesn’t appear—he’s in the trainers room. I know this because at one point Duhon runs a paper tray of chicken fingers and fries to him in there. Apparently Michael Sweetney isn’t only the backup backup center, he’s also the team nutritionist.
Scott Skiles speaks before one of those nifty portable backdrops. I’ve never really noticed it before, but if Skiles shaved his head he’d look a lot like Joey Crawford. Interesting, since they both have pugnacious tendencies. I’d pay to see them go 12 rounds. Instead, I have to settle for listening to Skiles answer questions. Sigh. Answers follow:
“I sense we’re gonna be there again tonight and play a very good game. What that matters, I don’t know.”
“This is in effect our first playoff game tonight—that’s what it is.”
As he’s saying something about the importance of them winning 50 games (they’re on 49)—something about how it was talked about as a goal, then they thought it was out of reach, now winning tonight is important so yes, it is important after all—a beatwriter’s cell phone rings. Loudly. And his ringtone is “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Fighting back laughter, Ben mentions that he hopes the guy’s from New Orleans.
The closest we get to the home locker room is walking past it. Kerry Kittles, standing outside the door, says hey. He’s apparently working as some sort of assistant coach these days, which is very cool.
FOOD. Pepper steak over rice. Steamed vegetables. Seen this movie before—and it wasn’t all that great the first time. I believe the word I’m looking for is “overcooked”. C+. Sorry, Gary.
Incidentally, this wasn’t supposed to be an ESPN game, but it became one when the powers-that-be decided that Washington v. Indiana probably didn’t mean anything to anybody. Good call.
The national anthem is performed by a girl in an off-the-shoulder white sweater who reminds me of Vanessa Williams—Rick Fox’s Vanessa Williams—when she, um, posed for that one magazine back in the ’80s. This is a good thing.
It’s fan appreciation night at the Continental, so the Nets have a player address the crowd. And rather than choose between All-Stars Vince Carter and Jason Kidd, they hand the job over to career journeyman Mikki Moore. Somehow, if I were a fan, I wouldn’t feel very appreciated. (And that’s no knock on Mikki’s game, which continues to improve at an exponential rate.) Later on, Vince and Jason (and RJ) deliver brief monotone taped thank-yous over the scoreboard that seem about as heartfelt as a subway announcement.
Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon start at guards for the Bulls. This is fine, as they’re both excellent players. It’s when you try and figure who guards Vince and who guards Kidd that things get interesting. (Kirk starts on VC.)
It’s worth noting that Jason Collins can’t even get the jump ball right. If he’s still starting next year, I’m taking up a collection to buy the Nets a real center.
Both teams race out to a 6-all tie.
Kirk rims out a three, Kidd rebounds and throws a length-of-the-court strike to VC who makes the layup while getting mauled by Ben Gordon. He misses the free throw. Before he goes to the line, P.J. Brown stops BG under the basket to impart some veteran wisdom—probably about how he should have made sure to make Vince miss the layup by flipping him over into the cameramen on the baseline.
The Nets get a three-on-two break with Carter, Jefferson and Moore—and blow it. The Bulls should get a point for that. Keep in mind that with Ben Wallace and Jason Collins starting, the game is essentially four-on-four to begin with. From an offensive standpoint.
Carter scores on a driving layup, then buries a three over the top of Hinrich. That’s 15-8, Nets. Chicago’s not getting any second opportunities, and the Nets are turning missed jumpers into runouts. This is why, as a Bulls fan, I’ll be more than happy to not see Chicago play Jersey in the first round.
At 4:38, wholesale changes. Andres Nocioni, Tyrus Thomas and Chris Duhon.
The Nets counter with Boki Nachbar and Josh Boone.
Boki strikes first. Three. 22-10. And Carter hits another three of his own, this time over Tyrus. 25-10. If the Bulls are, as Skiles predicted, playing a “very good game,” I hope I never see them play a bad one.
Ben Gordon stops the bleeding.
And Marcus Williams checks in and re-starts it, tossing a 25-foot alley-oop to Mikki Moore.
Gordon hits again, an almost-three. And Duhon adds three more. 27-17.
Carter for two, Nocioni for three. Nine more exchanges like that and we’ll have a tie game.
Antoine Wright checks in for the ultra-important last 4.3 seconds of the quarter.
End of 1, Nets up 31-22.
Luol Deng scores.
Marcus Williams finds a cutting Antoine Wright with a nifty bounce pass into the lane, and Wright finishes with an up-and-under reverse layup. The Bulls do nothing, and Nocioni fouls Boone on an oop. And 1. 36-24, Nets.
If the Bulls were any colder, you’d be able to find them in the freezer section of your local supermarket. Or in a drawer at the morgue.
Whoever is manning the sound system plays WAY more of Rush’s “Bastille Day” than has ever been played at any professional sporting event ever.
P.J. Brown fouls Richard Jefferson on a drive, and some loudmouth fan yells “YOU’RE OLD ENOUGH TO KNOW BETTER!” Um, sir? You look like you’re on the north side of 50, which means you should also be old enough to know better. Ask Charlie Ward what happens when you mess with P.J.
The game basically goes to hell for a while. Fouls, both offensive and defensive, travelling violations, missed free throws, lots of complaining to the refs (none of whom seem to be wearing Joey Crawford’s number on their shoes or anything—shame).
The Nets recover, the Bulls don’t. There’s a sequence where Kidd knocks a defensive rebound out of Nocioni’s hands, saves it, and gets it to Moore for a layup. Moore blocks a Bulls shot, and the next time down the Nets miss, and Kidd does the same exact thing to Tyrus Thomas. Another blown opportunity for the Bulls, another layup for the Nets. Enter Thabo Sefolosha and Malik Allen.
Kirk Hinrich for three. Mikki Moore dunks a Jefferson miss, and Malik hits a J. Somehow the Bulls are only down 10, 48-38. It’s hard to believe.
They stretch the lead to 12 by the half, 52-40. Mikki Moore, fan appreciator, has 16 of those 52 points. That’s more than the Bulls entire starting frontcourt.
The Bulls get off to a good start in the third. We can only assume that Scott Skiles killed a goat at halftime with the implication that if the team didn’t start playing well that one of them would be next. P.J. hits a jumper, Deng hits one of two free throws, the Nets commit a three-second violation, and P.J. gets a three-point play courtesy of VC. And suddenly the Nets lead is six.
Carter misses a three, comes up with his own board, and misses a two. I hope he’s not as adverse to driving his car as he is to driving the basketball. Perhaps he should make Antoine Wright or Hassan Adams his on-court chauffeur. “Drive this ball to the basket for me, would you?”
Kidd draws a charge on Kirk. Carter hits a jumper, and claps derisively at himself. He then fouls Ben Gordon and is quite upset.
Mikki Moore hits a jumper and now has 20 points.
Kirk comes off screen, hits three. News at 11.
Time for one of those contests where some poor fan—this time a middle-aged chap in an authentic silver Vince Carter jersey—gets to try his luck from three-point range in exchange for Continental Airlines flights to various locales. He doesn’t come close to hitting anything in the alotted time, and given the chance to redeem himself with a half-court shot for a trip to Beijing, he misses by roughly 15 feet. I suggest to Ben that they should give him the ticket to Beijing anyway—one-way.
Kirk loses the ball on two straight possessions, and has to dive for it each time. The first time he doesn’t get it, the second he does, but he has to call time to retain possession. The walk back to the huddle has probably never seemed so long.
Gordon is blocked emphatically by Kidd—a fantastic play. The Nets miss, Deng gets a runout, and is called for a charge when he collides with Jason Collins. It’s been that kind of night for the Bulls.
Kirk picks up his fourth foul, and remains in the game. Which is fine, except for the fact that there is still 5:08 to go. In the third quarter.
Mikki Moore commits his fourth shortly thereafter, and is removed for the Snackbar.
As fourth fouls seem to be popular this time of year, Luol Deng doesn’t want to feel left out. Pushing off.
Chris Duhon layup, P.J. Brown jumper, and suddenly it’s 64-61 Nets. Time out.
Apparently this time out represents the last of the Fan Appreciation Night giveaways. Stuff like a cruise, a trip to the Masters (or some PGA event anyway), a gas grill. But…it’s still the third quarter? This reminds me of the time the Knicks owner re-upped his coach and GM with 18 games left and they wound up going down in flames and missing the playoffs. Remember that?
It’s worth noting here that Jason Kidd has 10 rebounds and nine assists to go with his zero points.
Richard Jefferson commits an offensive foul. Then Ben Gordon, guarded by Kidd on the perimeter, lowers his head into Kidd’s midsection. Kidd takes a step back, Gordon stumbles to the ground, and Kidd is called for the foul. You know what? Bring back Joey Crawford.
Kidd misses, Wright gets the rebound and flips it to…Chris Duhon, who finds Gordon up ahead for a three. 66-65 Nets, with 1:17 to go in the third.
Carter hits a jumper, some other stuff happens, and Nocioni ties it at 68 with a three. The game to this point no longer matters, which probably comes as a relief to the Bulls seeing that they’ve sucked for most of it.
Josh Boone catches the ball deep, and P.J. Brown defends the play perfectly, shoving Boone in the chest with one hand as he gets dunked on. And 1. You’re old enough to know better, P.J. Gordon gets two back with a driving layup, and P.J. fouls Boone AGAIN, who this time acts like a proper rookie and misses both free throws.
End of the third, Nets lead 71-70.
But first, it’s the largest t-shirt toss ever! Which is great news for the kids in the really expensive seats (one front-row girl leaves later—early, of course—clutching no less than five t-shirts) and not so much for the commoners upstairs, who get roughly one of every 10 t-shirts thrown. Well, they get NONE of the t-shirts thrown, actually, but a couple ARE shot up there with the ever-faithful pneumatic t-shirt gun. Let them eat cake. And $5 hot dogs.
And this is where home court starts to matter. Nachbar and Boone continue to play well, a few of the Bulls with four fouls pick up their respective fifths. The Bulls keep it at six or so, but a Wallace layup is bookended by a pair of Boki triples, and with just over five minutes remaining the Nets are up nine.
Ben Osborne observes Ben Wallace taking off his “full-on football thigh pads” and tossing them aside as he stands outside the lane while Jefferson is setting up for a free throw. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
And here’s a great sequence for Chicago fans: Wallace is fouled on a drive, misses the dunk. He then misses both free throws, and while Nocioni gets the rebound, he’s called for a lane violation. Jason Kidd adds insult to injury by hitting his first (and only) field goal of the evening—a corner three from right in front of the Bulls bench. Merry Christmas. 94-81 Nets with 4:02 to go.
Deng gets a three-point play right afterwards, but the momentum—and the game—is already gone. Wallace gets a dunk after a Nets turnover to cut the deficit to eight, but Carter hits a three to push it back to 11.
And the rest is just window dressing. Hinrich hits a corner three from in front of the Nets bench to cut the final difference to single digits, but it’s not a moral victory kind of night. The Nets get the Raptors, the Bulls get a nightmare.
Final score, 106-97 Nets. Kidd finishes with five points to go with his 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Carter just misses a second-straight triple double with 24 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. And Collins’s zero points (on an efficient zero shots) is more than offset by the output of Nachbar, Moore and Boone, who combine to score 52 points and shoot 18-24 from the floor.
The Bulls. Hm. Nocioni has his best game since his return, 19 points on six-of-10 shooting. Deng and Big Ben have 10-plus boards apiece. And they shoot 51 percent as a team in the second half. Other than that? Not many positives.
Scott Skiles sums it up in a sentence: “We didn’t play very well.” Yep, that pretty much covers it. But he goes on. “We took a couple jump shots from 15 feet and all crashed in and opened up the backcourt. They ran right by us like we were standing flatfooted.”
We’ve gotta run—Ben to somewhere else in Jersey, me to a bus—so there’s no time for locker room talk. I pop in for just a minute, to wish a towel-clad Kirk Hinrich luck against the Heat. He—and his teammates—are probably going to need it.