(Sports Network) - What a way to continue an inaugural season.
The Brooklyn Nets are in the playoffs on their first try and captured the
fourth seed in the East, ending a five-year drought for a team that departed
the swamps of New Jersey for one of the five boroughs in New York City.
Brooklyn will kick off the Eastern Conference quarterfinals versus the Chicago
Bulls and last tasted the postseason in 2006-07.
"It's good for us, the first season in Brooklyn to be in the playoffs," Nets
point guard Deron Williams told the team's website. "That was the goal, and we
accomplished that goal. But we've still got a ways to go."
The 49 wins were the most since the 2005-06 squad recorded that many. The main
figures pushing the buttons behind the scenes were owner Mikhail Prokhorov and
rapper Jay-Z. The Russian billionaire teamed up with the hip hop mogul and the
Nets finally have something going again for the franchise, which needed a
coaching change to ignite a playoff run.
P.J. Carlesimo took over for Avery Johnson after 28 games (14-14).
"I just got a sense, as I told Avery this morning, that he just wasn't
reaching them anymore," general manager Billy King said back in December.
The players bought in to Carlesimo's ideas and gave the nearby New York Knicks
a scare for the Atlantic Division title. The Knicks eventually woke up and
rallied toward the end of the regular season to stymie the Nets, but all is
good in the 11217 zip code because the playoffs are right around the corner.
"I think we know how good we can be," Carlesimo said on the Nets' website.
"We've had the roster intact at different times. We just need everybody
healthy. The playoffs are a different animal ... everything starts all over."
Carlesimo, who went 35-19 on an interim basis and could be in line for a new
contract, was fortunate that Williams didn't take his talents elsewhere and
decided to re-sign with the team. He, along with Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez,
spearheaded a Nets team that preached defense, allowing 95.1 ppg, and ball
movement. Williams was fifth in the NBA with 7.7 assists per game and was
second on the team with 18.9 points. Lopez, though, enjoyed an all-around
solid campaign with a team-high 19.4 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Brooklyn has home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and will
see its first postseason game since Oct. 10, 1956, when the Dodgers lost to
the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series.
Chicago is familiar with the postseason, having made it to the playoffs in
five straight and eight of the last nine years.
What's amazing with the Bulls is how they overcame adversity when former NBA
MVP Derrick Rose failed to make a return in the regular season after going
down with a torn knee ligament in last season's Eastern Conference
quarterfinals loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Rose is not expected to come back any time soon and it's safe to say 2013-14
will be a better timetable for his return. Stranger things could happen with
Rose, who said previously that mentally he was not ready to inject himself
back into the Chicago lineup.
Without Rose, the beat went on for Chicago, which utilized defense and
toughness, traits that resemble what Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau relays to his
players. It worked in ending Miami's 27-game winning streak in which LeBron
James took a beating and the nation captured a glimpse of what the Bulls can
do when playing together.
Bulls reserve forward/center Taj Gibson, a native of Brooklyn, talked recently
about the upcoming series with the Nets.
"It's kind of, like, crazy and surreal, but at the same time scary because
that's a tough team," Gibson said of going home to compete in the postseason.
"I'm also worried about just us being ready and focused to go in and battle
with that team. But I'm looking forward to it."
Gibson said he will change his phone number to avoid distractions and not deal
with pressure from the outside. His main focus is trying to get wins and help
the Bulls move on in the playoffs. Playing hard, being precise and executing
will be key to Chicago's success, according to Gibson.
"It all comes down to guys being ready and understanding what they need to
do," Gibson added.
Joining Gibson in the quest for NBA greatness are big men Carlos Boozer and
Joakim Noah, who missed some time toward the end of the regular season due to
injury, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich. Marco Belinelli was able to have a
healthy return for the Bulls, who make up for a lack of scoring with defense.
The Bulls averaged 93.2 ppg, which was tied with Philadelphia and Washington
for last, but they were third in opponents' scoring at 92.9 ppg.
BACKCOURT: With no Rose to rely on, the Bulls have the next best option in
Hinrich. Hinrich played tough in that big win over the Heat and led the Bulls
with 5.2 assists per game. Not known as a fluid scorer, Hinrich does exactly
what Thibodeau wants of him and plays well on the defensive end. The Bulls
were 38-22 when Hinrich started this season and 11-3 when he has at least
seven assists. Belinelli fought off injury at season's end and can make a
clutch shot when needed, just ask the Boston Celtics. The Italian guard
averaged 13.0 points in 27 starts. But the Nets take the backcourt edge
because of one man: Williams. D-Will scored in double figures in all four
meetings with the Bulls this season, but Chicago was 3-1 in those games.
Williams is a strong 3-point shooter and averaged 23.6 ppg in 17 games prior
to Wednesday's season finale. His offensive numbers improved since the All-
Star break. Johnson joins Williams in the backcourt and his numbers dropped
after coming over from Atlanta. Johnson had to share with D-Will and Lopez.
FRONTCOURT: Lopez will see playoff action for the first time in his career and
made fans feel a lot better when management failed to land Dwight Howard in
the offseason. The center led the team in scoring and played in 74 of the
possible 82 games. Lopez made his first All-Star Game as a replacement for
Boston's Rajon Rondo and was the only player averaging at least 19 points,
seven boards and two blocks per game. Forward Gerald Wallace had a down year
with 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, but forward Reggie Evans stepped up with his
impressive rebounding skills. He averaged 11.1 rpg and grabbed at least 20 on
nine occasions. Evans had eight straight games with 13 or more boards. That
may not impress the Bulls when they roll out the likes of Boozer, Noah and
Luol Deng. The Bulls hope Noah will be ready for this series and he brings
passion and enthusiasm to the floor. Boozer is a brute force down low and Deng
can kill teams inside and out.
BENCH: He probably won't win the Sixth Man of the Year Award, but Bulls guard
Nate Robinson played bigger than his 5-9 stature. Robinson averaged more than
25 minutes per game and brings a brash style of play to the court. The
energetic Robinson had two 30-point games this season and scored 10-plus
points in a quarter a team-best 27 times. Another big contributor off the
bench who can also start is Jimmy Butler. Butler's also an athletic player
who's not a fantastic shooter but can drive the lane. With Noah nursing his
issues, Butler got a nice taste as a starter. Gibson, Rip Hamilton and Nazr
Mohammed will come off the bench as well for Chicago. Brooklyn's notable
reserves are former Bull C.J. Watson, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Andray
Blatche and Jerry Stackhouse. Known as the "Bench Mob," the Nets' reserves are
average at best, but once in a while will provide a boost. Blatche led the
Brooklyn bench with 10.3 ppg.
COACHING: Strident ways may not have worked with Carlesimo in the past, but
this season has been different. Having worked under the brilliant basketball
mind of Gregg Popovich, Carlesimo has something brewing in Brooklyn and, if he
continues to flourish, a contract offer could be in the cards. He will have to
outsmart Thibodeau, who uses a tough in-your-face philosophy. Carlesimo, who
hasn't won a playoff game since 1997, hopes the combination of Williams and
Lopez can wear down Chicago's big bodies. Without a true point guard in this
one for the Bulls, Thibs may need six or seven games to move on despite having
the lower seed.
PREDICTION: With or without Rose, the Bulls will make it an interesting series
with the Nets. Yes, Brooklyn's backcourt is far superior than Chicago's, but
the Bulls can instill fear into the Nets by playing tough and gritty, much
the way they played versus Miami in late March. Williams will fill the
against the Bulls. The question is who will follow the talented point guard?
will be a battle for six or seven games with the Bulls using the underdog
as their motivation.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: BULLS in 6
The Sports Network