By Steve Lichtenstein
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With 3:15 remaining in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo called a timeout.
The Nets were ahead, 98-91. They were at home, playing with the urgency that is required in an elimination game. Chicago was without starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who was inactive with a left calf injury.
So of course my initial thoughts were, “Uh-oh. Here we go again.”
However, unlike Saturday’s brutal 142-134 triple-overtime loss in Chicago during which the Nets squandered a 14-point lead at that exact same mark, this time the Nets survived to fight another day.
Thursday, specifically, for Game 6 in Chicago, thanks to a 110-91 victory.
The Nets still trail the best-of-seven series 3-2, but get another chance to wipe away the memory of that awful stink from their previous visit to the Windy City.
If the Nets weren’t able to close the deal on this one, Carlesimo might as well have packed up his belongings in his office immediately after his post-game press conference.
“I believed that we would respond (from the Game 4 loss),” said Carlesimo. “We’ve bounced back all year too well and as disheartening a loss as that was on Saturday, there’s still been enough good minutes in this series. Neither of us is getting away from each other.”
Fortunately, Carlesimo’s end-game lineup last night created a significantly better matchup, with reserve center Andray Blatche playing almost the entire fourth quarter, including the closing seven minutes at power forward.
Blatche responded with 10 points in the final frame and did not give it all back on defense guarding Chicago star Carlos Boozer.
“I just thought he (Blatche) was playing very well,” said Carlesimo. “The biggest thing he was doing was his shot selection was excellent. He didn’t settle for jump shots unless the clock was on his back. He took the ball to the basket, he was aggressive, and I thought in the second half he defended much better than in the first half.”
Beleaguered small forward Gerald Wallace also played an important role. After a lengthy respite had me again playing “Where’s Wallace,” Carlesimo reinserted him at the 3:15 timeout.
A minute later, Wallace made the two biggest plays of the game–a left corner three-pointer off an inbounds pass from point guard Deron Williams (23 points, 10 assists) followed by a breakaway dunk off an intercepted lazy pass from Bulls guard Nate Robinson that put the Nets ahead, 103-91 with two minutes left.
“Our backs are against the wall right now,” said Wallace. “We are not ready to go home. (On the three-pointer) I just didn’t hesitate and think about it, just shoot it.”
The turnabout couldn’t have been more ironic. After all, it was a missed breakaway dunk by Nets reserve guard C.J. Watson that proved to be the catalyst for the Nets’ Game 4 collapse. Wallace also wore goat horns from bricking a pair of free throws, committing an offensive foul, and getting called for a 5-second violation on an inbounds play during that dreadful run.
Plus the Bulls would have been toast if not for Robinson’s 12 consecutive points. Last night, the Nets held the diminutive and abrasive Robinson to four fourth-quarter points on 2-for-5 shooting in addition to that crucial turnover.
So what does this all mean for Thursday? Maybe nothing and maybe everything.
The Nets have been a model of inconsistency all season. There aren’t too many teams that can put up triple digits three times in five games on Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s defense, no matter how banged up the Bulls are. Center Brook Lopez has given the hobbled Joakim Noah fits inside, averaging 23.6 points per game this series after his 28-point, 10-rebound performance last night.
But the Nets are also very capable of falling into funks, like their 18-minute Game 3 drought and Game 4 choke job. While last night’s win obviously showed how well they can play when threatened with the end of their season, there’s no guarantee they’ll come out with the same intensity next time.
I believe It will all come down to whether Carlesimo sticks with what’s worked in this series (lots of Blatche at power forward, less of the offensively-challenged Reggie Evans; Williams, not Watson, on Robinson down the stretch; Joe Johnson stationed from the middle of the court to the right side) and can counter Thibodeau’s inevitable adjustments.
The Bulls are not unbeatable in the United Center, even if Hinrich recovers to play on Thursday. Sure they’ll scratch and claw to stay in every game, but that also means the Nets will likely have their shot at some point in the game to steal it.
Though I’ve got to stick with my Bulls in six prediction, maybe the Nets have finally figured out how to close games. I’d give almost anything to be wrong.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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