The Bulls' quest to close out their first-round playoff series against Brooklyn on Thursday played out like sort of the "Tough Mudder" version of postseason basketball. That's sort of an extended obstacle course/bonding exercise that's growing in popularity.
The Bulls were carrying logs, crawling through dirt, trying to climb a steep hill on tired legs. On top of that, two of their teammates didn't make it to the starting line.
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After pulling together and holding the Nets to just 35 points in the second half on 27.8-percent shooting, they couldn't take that last step. They'd get within 1 point, 2 points, but never pulled even after halftime. Brooklyn held on to win Game 6 at the United Center 95-92 and force a decisive seventh game Saturday at the Barclays Center.
Inside the locker room, Joakim Noah didn't sound as though he felt defeated by the narrow loss.
"I'm ready to play. I want to go play right now," Noah said. "That's my emotions.
"We're a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face, but we fight back. I'm proud of this team and we're going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we're going to win."
The Bulls played without Kirk Hinrich (left calf bruise) and Luol Deng (illness). The Bulls would not confirm nor deny a report by csnchicago.com that Deng had a spinal tap Thursday for fear he might have viral meningitis. According to the report, he does not.
Needless to say, the status for both players for Game 7 is questionable. The Bulls dropped to 7-17 on the season without Hinrich.
"It's going to take all of us sticking together through all kinds of adversity," Noah said. "This has been a hard year, a real hard year, but I'm really proud of this team. We're a team of fighters. ... I want to play (Game 7) right now."
Noah's minutes limit on his sore right foot went out the window again this night. He played 43 minutes. Jimmy Butler played all 48, while Marco Belinelli was on the floor for all but 97 seconds.
Nate Robinson, who was also feeling sick, took a couple of short rests and sat near a trash can on the bench. He would not confirm nor deny whether he threw up on the sideline.
"All of our guys played extremely hard. We just didn't pull it out at the end," Butler said. "They know they've got to win Game 7. We know we've got to win Game 7. Same style basketball, it's going to be a fight. The tougher team is gonna get the win. We go in wanting to be the tougher team."
The best chance for the Bulls to complete Thursday's comeback arrived with the Bulls trailing 92-90. Robinson, the Game 4 hero, had the ball in his hands and drove to the basket. Defenders lunged toward at him, bodies hit the floor and the final ruling was a missed shot and loose ball foul against the Bulls with 32 seconds left.
Brooklyn's Andray Blatche split a pair of free throws, then Nazr Mohammed finished a layin off a pass from Noah to make it a 1-point game with 25.2 seconds left. The Nets missed 11 free throws on the night, but given another chance, Blatche nailed both shots to make it 95-92 with 19.2 seconds on the clock.
Belinelli escaped from a Gerald Wallace bear hug to get a decent look at a 3-pointer. It bounced long off the rim and Noah chased it down, but he stepped out of bounds as he grabbed the ball.
The Bulls got one more chance when Noah tied up Deron Williams, forcing a jump ball with 3.6 seconds left. Despite the height advantage, Noah couldn't tap the ball to a teammate. Joe Johnson secured possession as time expired.
Belinelli led the Bulls with 22 points and 7 assists. Robinson scored 18 and hit 7 of 15 shots from the field. Butler added 17 points, while Noah (14 points, 15 rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (14 points, 13 rebounds) each had double-doubles.
Brooklyn won for the first time in five tries at the United Center this season. In 10 games between these teams this season, the Nets have had their top 10 players every time, while the Bulls always seem to be missing pieces.
"If there's a team in the league that plays harder than them, I don't know who it is," Brooklyn coach PJ. Carlesimo said. "It was kind of a bloodbath game and fortunately we came out on top and put ourselves in position now.
"We can take a deep breath until the plane takes off, then it's one game to advance."