Saturday night will bring the first dual-elimination scenario of this year's NBA playoffs. The Nets and Bulls have played to a draw over the first six games of their first-round series. Based on the way this series has gone so far, we have every reason to expect a highly competitive finale. Brooklyn and Chicago haven't played consistently well across this series, but their on-court troubles tend to mirror each other in such a way that keeps the margins tight and the finishes dramatic.
As we gear up for this series' conclusion, we broach Game 7 with three fundamental questions:
1. Will Chicago have enough healthy players to pull out an improbable road win?
The 3-1 lead the Bulls once held in this series is now a distant memory, as injury and illness have left a once formidable team to rely on under-the-weather rotation players and unused end-of-the-bench types. Luol Deng has already been ruled out for Game 7 after suffering painful complications from a spinal tap, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. Meanwhile, Kirk Hinrich -- who had done essential defensive work against Deron Williams in this series -- may miss the game as well with a calf injury that has left him limping. Joakim Noah is on the up and up, but continues to suffer foot pain as a result of plantar fasciitis. There's been no update on the status of Nate Robinson or Taj Gibson (both of whom were clearly ill, but played through Game 6 as best they could), but both are presumed to be available and somewhat limited.
These are hefty losses for a team that's already missing its primary shot creator in Derrick Rose, particularly due to the way Chicago's depth chart has now been pinched. Should Hinrich also be ruled out, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau will have to lean heavily on the heaving Robinson and the somewhat erratic Marco Belinelli to handle the ball. Belinelli will also be called on to help supply wing scoring in the absence of Deng. Gibson's health presents a similar issue, as he was already playing an important role as a team defender and a spot frontcourt fill-in that helped the Bulls account for the minutes limit on Noah. Without him at full strength, Chicago's rotation would be -- and was, in Game 6 -- at a clear disadvantage.
Chicago found unlikely ways to navigate its hospital ward of a roster to keep things competitive Thursday, but one gets the impression the bottom could fall out on this team's efforts at virtually any time. Such is implicit when Robinson, Belinelli, and Jimmy Butler are to be members of the Bulls' offensive core. All three are capable contributors in the right context, but unsteady enough to inspire plenty of reservations about the size of their now-necessary roles.
2. Can Brooklyn find redemption in closing out the series after so many late-game slips?
No team in this year's postseason has squandered opportunities quite as consistently as the Nets, whose most notable flameouts include a marvelous Game 4 implosion, a Game 3 letdown that altered the course of the series, and the near-botching of a Game 6 they should have won easily. As much as the Bulls deserve credit for fighting through every ailment, these Nets have thus far turned in a playoff performance deserving of only a deep sigh. The offense is still stagnant, the effort is still inconsistent, and the lineup constructions of P.J. Carlesimo still make it difficult for the team to execute in the ways desired. There have been intermittent positives (a gold star for Brook Lopez!) along the way, but Brooklyn's inability to put away this plucky and diminished Chicago team should otherwise be deemed regrettable.
Still, the Nets have at the very least put themselves in a position to pull out a Game 7 on the road that they should rightly win, provided things go according to plan Saturday night. Williams should have a very clear upper hand on Robinson, Belinelli, or Marquis Teague if Hinrich is unable to play. Likewise, Deng's absence should make life significantly easier for either Joe Johnson or the suddenly more useful Gerald Wallace. Lopez has done a fine job of scoring from within Chicago's formidable defense all series long. He should also have a similarly simple path in scoring over the top of a still-injured Noah and pushing past reserve center Nazr Mohammed. This has been a relatively tight series since the Bulls corrected their Game 1 follies, and with further injuries and absences, it stands to reason Game 7 should be the Nets' to lose.
But hypotheticals of performance have become a dangerous proposition with this Brooklyn team, which far too often underwhelms in its effort and diligence. They have the clear upper hand at the moment thanks to some horrid luck on Chicago's part, but will that be enough to wrap up a series against such a resilient opponent?
3. Can the Bulls bigs keep the Nets off the offensive glass?
With neither team able to rely on consistent scoring, offensive rebounds have become a rather important currency for both teams, just like in the regular season. Yet between the two, the ability to secure extra possessions on the offensive glass seems far more crucial to the Nets, oddly enough, as they've rebounded like one of the best boarding teams in the NBA during their series wins and grabbed offensive rebounds at the rate of a bottom-five rebounding team in their losses. Rebounder extraordinaire Reggie Evans (who grabs an offensive board on 7.2 percent of the Nets misses while on the court) naturally plays a part in that, but Lopez (11.1 percent) and Andray Blatche (8.2 percent) have ALSO done an outstanding -- and statistically superior -- job of creating bonus scoring opportunities throughout the series. We often assess the Bulls' various injuries in terms of what they mean for their already underwhelming scoring efforts, but they apply just as readily to defensive execution and team rebounding. With Noah still not quite himself and Gibson not quite in good health (not to mention Mohammed ), Chicago understandably has a hard time keeping bigs like Lopez, Blatche and Evans fully boxed out. This strains the defense by having to defend either a high-quality shot at the rim or another entire possession. Losing Deng -- who has been one of the Bulls' better overall rebounders this postseason -- hurts there as well, and only heightens the pressure on the Bulls' bigs to secure every rebound possible. Carlos Boozer has done an outstanding job on that end and ranks as one of the best defensive rebounders of the postseason, but he'll need help from every Bull in uniform to ensure 20 seconds of well-played defense aren't undone by a gut-punch offensive rebound for the Nets.