Give the Brooklyn Nets credit. They took the floor at the United Center determined to throw the first punch.
Actually, the Nets flailed away like an angry seventh grader, trying to hit the Bulls with everything they had in the opening minutes of the bout.
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The Bulls struggled to work the ball anywhere near the paint on offense against the extra-aggressive Nets. At one point, Kirk Hinrich barely kept his dribble as Brooklyn guard Deron Williams hit him with jabs, hooks and maybe a couple of leg whips.
The problem with that was, the Nets are an offensive team. There was no chance they could keep up that pace in a hostile playoff environment.
After jumping to a quick 17-5 lead, Brooklyn seemed to collapse against the ropes, exhausted. With the Bulls turning up the juice, the Nets missed 25 of their next 26 shots.
The Bulls turned the tables and rolled to a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter, then they seemed to run out of gas and take a knee. Brooklyn finished the game on a 14-2 run, but the Bulls survived with a 79-76 victory when former teammate C.J. Watson air-balled a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Bulls lead this first-round series 2-1 with Game 4 scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the UC.
"The first five minutes wasn't the way we wanted to start the game, but we fought back," said Carlos Boozer, who is the early pick for MVP of this series. He finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds Thursday.
"We've been a resilient team all year. I guess we clung to that experience. We kept fighting, kept playing, our defense got better, then we had the momentum."
Slow start, slow finish -- however it went down -- it's clear the Bulls are carrying Brooklyn well out of its comfort zone. During the final 16 games of the regular season, the Nets averaged 103.8 points, then rang up 106 against the Bulls in the series opener.
But Brooklyn is a team of three stars and a questionable supporting cast. If that seems like a scenario Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau could pick apart with relative ease, that's the way it's playing out on the court.
Brook Lopez (22 points), Williams (18) and Joe Johnson (15) scored most of the points, while the Nets shot just 34.6 percent from the field overall.
"The Bulls are playing good defense," Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "They are loading up on our guys who are capable of scoring. We are not shooting the 3 well at all. Most of the (misses) inside is because they are playing very good defense."
Carlesimo didn't buy the theory that the Nets punched themselves out in the opening six minutes. He's well aware the Nets as a franchise have dropped 11 of the last 13 games in Chicago.
"I'll still take that start, particularly coming here, the first game here, Game 3," Carlesimo said. "We were respectful of this team and the building. I was concerned what the first six minutes were going to be like. I'll take those six anytime."
The Bulls knew how to turn things around in midstream. Williams, the former Illinois star, scored 8 points in the first six minutes of the first quarter, then didn't score again until the 5:09 mark of the third quarter.
Luol Deng (21 points, 10 rebounds) opened the third quarter by scoring 12 points in four minutes. He knocked down 4 long jumpers and added a 3-point play off a backdoor cut. That was the run that really put the Bulls in command, boosting the advantage to 56-40 midway through the third.
The Bulls nearly ran out of steam themselves at the end. After taking a 77-62 lead with 5:45 remaining, they went scoreless on eight straight possessions.
Brooklyn pulled within 77-72 with two minutes left, then missed two chances to get even closer. Finally after a couple of offensive rebounds, Lopez's dunk made it a 3-point game with 14.4 seconds left. Nate Robinson split a pair of free throws with 10.7 seconds on the clock to make it 78-74.
After Williams scored on a drive with five seconds left, the Bulls, out of bounds, inbounded the ball to Noah. Playing again on his sore foot, Noah was scoreless and 0-for-7 from the field at that point in the game. He missed the first free throw, but hit the second to make it a 3-point game. Noah did collect 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in 27 minutes.
"We had to dig out of that hole (in the first quarter). Once we did that, I thought for the most part, the second and third quarters, we played well," Thibodeau said. "You relax for a second, that team is very, very good. They get a crack, they can score the ball. We're going to have to bounce back. There's a lot of things we have to do a lot better."