Sunday April 21st, 2013

BROOKLYN -- Pretty it wasn't, but the Nets' 106-89 win in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference showdown with the Bulls accomplished what Brooklyn needed -- to take care of an injury-weakened opponent before its remaining weapons found enough rhythm to create trouble.

Coming into a duel minus Derrick Rose and with Joakim Noah limited to only 13 minutes as he struggled to return from plantar fasciitis, the Nets walked on to the floor with built-in advantages inside and outside, and pressed those to their fullest.

Brook Lopez, playing to the form that earned him his first All-Star nod this season, left his mark on both ends of the floor. With blocks on two consecutive possessions early in the first quarter, Lopez countered whatever boost Chicago hoped to receive from Noah's return to the starting lineup. And with the Nets struggling from the field early, Lopez's active work in the paint against the Bulls' small front line got him to the line and Brooklyn in front at a time when playoff jitters are often at their most acute.

"Lopez is a tough matchup," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "He's got great touch. He's got a great back-to-the-basket game. He's got skill. But we didn't make him play in a crowd. We allowed him to catch it too easily. We didn't give the appropriate help."

With Lopez's 19 points leading an effort that saw Brooklyn outscore Chicago 40-8 in the paint after two quarters (and by 20 for the game), Deron Williams found plenty of room to operate. After tag-teaming with Lopez to carry the Nets' sputtering offense early, Williams orchestrated a second quarter performance that all but ended the game by halftime. Brooklyn hit 16 of 20 shots in the period as Williams probed, attacked and led like the star point guard he has been since the All-Star break.

"We were locked in today," said Williams. "Our first half of basketball was probably one of the best halves we played all season as far as ball movement, defense, being attentive, helping each other out. It was really unselfish basketball and it's fun basketball to play."

Even Gerald Wallace, who largely has appeared in boxscores in name only this season, rediscovered the athletic gifts that once made him one of the league's best multi-purpose players. Wallace totaled 14 points and, more important, was a mobile, long presence on defense in the Nets' frontcourt.

"[Gerald] could have had zero points tonight and he might have still arguably been one of the two or three best players tonight," said Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo after Wallace grabbed six rebounds, blocked two shots and held the Bulls' Luol Deng to a 3-for-11 shooting night. "He's a warrior."

Unlikely as it is that a Thibodeau-coached team will allow another 55.8-percent shooting performance, the Bulls still face a daunting challenge -- generating offense. During the regular season, Chicago's rugged, full-effort defense was enough to keep them in most games. But now Chicago isn't facing teams on back-to-backs or playing for the draft lottery. The Nets possess a healthy offense that ranks among the top 10 in efficiency.

"They had 60 points in the first half and they were shooting 60 percent, so you're taking the ball out of the net," lamented Thibodeau. "We've got to get some easy baskets. We missed some easy shots early and I think that took some of our energy away and you can't allow that to happen. If you miss shots you've got to be able to count on your defense and your rebounding. We didn't do that."

Carlos Boozer, one of only two Bulls starters to score in double digits in Game 1, can't carry the attack by himself. But it's questionable how much more Thibodeau can squeeze out of the offense, outside of a better outing from Deng, who was limited to six points. Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich are excellent complements, especially on defense, but they will not make up for the absence of Rose, whose absence hangs over Chicago like a candy machine at a Weight Watchers meeting.

The team refuses to rule Rose out for the series, but the likelihood of a return happening is more fantasy than longshot, no matter how many pregame jumpers Rose hoists.

"We have moving parts right now," Thibodeau said. "That being said, when the ball goes up you have to be ready to go. And the only way you're ready to go is if you have great concentration, you know your opponent well and you give maximum effort. So if we ease into it and we react after we're in a hole it's too late."

That has left Thibodeau scrambling, as he has much of this season, to stitch together a team longer on effort than elite skills against a Nets club who may finally be generating some sense of chemistry after being thrown together with a lot of dollars over the past two seasons.

"We've [talked about] the ups and downs all season, but I think we always expected to be in the playoffs and hoped to be clicking at the right time," Williams said. "Tonight, we did what we were supposed to do."

Now the Bulls have to figure out if they can do what they need to do to stay in the series.

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