If you're waiting for the Chicago Bulls to hit all their free throws down the stretch or turn a 14-point fourth-quarter lead into a rout, even at home, stop. If you're thinking the Bulls are going to win these playoff games with a flourish, don't. They're not going to overwhelm anybody. They're not going to win going away or do anything that suggests they have control of a series. They're not that team. Too many injured knees and feet, too much rust, too offensively challenged even if healthy.
But somehow they're just fine with it, with shooting 39.7 percent in a playoff game, with making just three 3-pointers, with being outscored by 10 in the fourth quarter and making a measly 50 percent of their free throws in that final quarter. They're fine with having so, so precious little margin for error, with every game going to the wire, with high drama that some teams wouldn't survive so regularly.
At a time when professional basketball, even playoff basketball, is trending toward free-wheeling and increased scoring, the Bulls are playing something more closely associated with wooden bleachers and peach baskets: 79-76 over the Nets to take a 2-1 series lead. Hideously effective. "We had quite a few games this season where we were blown out," Luol Deng said by way of explanation. "We had to realize that we have to play a certain style, a style that fits us. We play ugly. That's what we do. We have to make it a defensive game. Our mindset cannot be to go out and outscore anybody."
So after getting blown out in Game 1 of this series in Brooklyn, the Bulls have settled in tougly. Up and down, uneven. You think the Bulls and their 39.7 shooting look bad. You should have seen the other guy. The Nets shot 34.6 percent. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson missed 17 of 28 shots. The three big guns off the Brooklyn bench (Andray Blatche, C.J. Watson and Jerry Stackhouse) missed 16 of 20. At one point, the Nets missed 24 of 25 shots as the Bulls turned a 12-point deficit into a 12-point lead with a 28-4 run. More accurately, the Bulls' defense made the Nets miss 24 of 25 shots.
Here's what you have to know about the Bulls -- how good their defense is, and, at the same time, how offensively challenged they are: The Bulls held the Nets to 22.5 percent shooting in the first half and led by a grand total of seven. But again, they're OK with it because their best offensive player, Derrick Rose, is out, of course. Their point guard (Kirk Hinrich), their best guard with any real shooting range (Marco Belinelli) and their All-Star center (Joakim Noah) are either playing hurt or just coming back from being hurt.
"It's not going to be pretty," Noah said. "We have to grind it out, tough it out. This is our style of play. Go out and fight. We've dealt with so much this year; to just win is huge. So, it's not easy, it's not pretty but it is rewarding."
The exception is Carlos Boozer, whose 22 points and 16 rebounds made him the most efficient Bulls player by far, offensively. Hinrich had some nice moments early in Game 3. Deng was on fire (12 points in three minutes) early in the third quarter. But even Deng said, "I felt like I had seven good minutes [on offense]." He was 9-for-23. The constant was Boozer, the player so many wanted traded or amnestied when the season began. "I'm happy for Carlos, who has been criticized a lot since he's been here," Noah said. "We've had so many injuries. He's been the one constant this season."
So we're looking at a series in which each team has one big man scoring efficiently, Boozer for the Bulls and Brook Lopez for the Nets, and whoever finds a capable tag-team partner is likely to win the game. Hell, the Bulls are playing four against five offensively, what with Noah going 0-for-7 and scoring one point in 27 minutes. But, of course, it's Noah's energy, defense and inspired play just being out there on one foot that drives the team's effort. "I can't do everything I want to do," Noah said, admitting he can't even jump. "But I want to be out there and do what I can to help the team."
It's hard to see the series playing out much differently the rest of the way unless Williams, who's been stymied by Hinirch the past two games, figures out a way to free himself from the Bulls' strong safety. Johnson is bothered by the same plantar fasciitis that plagues Noah, so who knows if Johnson can do much better than the 6-for-14 he shot in Game 3. P.J. Carlesimo used the words "offensively challenged" to describe his own team but admitted, "The Bulls are playing good defense. They are loading up on our guys who are capable of scoring. We are not shooting the 3 well at all, not just the contested ones but the open ones, and we did a poor job finishing in the paint. Most of the stuff inside is because they are playing very good defense. It's been very difficult for us to finish."
This praise, of course, is symphonic to the Bulls' ears, particularly Tom Thibodeau's, who seemingly prefers to win the way the Bulls did in Games 2 and 3 than 110-90, which would offend his coach sensibilities. And it's probably a good thing, because the Bulls, even with a healthy Rose, tended toward this style of play. And now it's absolutely necessary. Does winning Games 2 and 3 tilt the series in the Bulls' favor? A little, yes, but not a lot. They've been so challenged to win three straight games all season, simply because no matter how much Thibs values defense, the Bulls won't likely be able to hold the Nets to sub-40 percent shooting and below 90 points for three consecutive games. It's not impossible, but it is improbable. At some point it seems the Bulls are going to need Boozer and Deng and, say, Nate Robinson to combine for 50-55 points.
Robinson, for some reason, was completely docile in Game 3. Three shots? That's downright suppressed for Robinson. The Bulls need his offense, particularly if they're going to get so little from Jimmy Butler (four points) and Noah.
But the Bulls aren't likely to spend a ton of time talking about offense in the little time between now and Game 4 (Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. CT). Deng joked about as much when he said, "We'll probably look at very little good offense and a lot more at what we can do defensively."
But can you reasonably ask your team to hold an opponent to lower than 34.9 percent, especially when that team has accomplished offensive players like Lopez, Johnson and Williams? It helps if Gerald Wallace, Watson and MarShon Brooks combine to miss 15 of 19 shots, as they did in Game 3. It's just difficult to win three straight games that way in the playoffs, by stifling a team again, playing harder and with more desperation again.
Yet, the beauty of this Bulls team is it knows this is the only way it can succeed. They were all embarrassed after being trashed that first game in Brooklyn. But now, one can sense the Nets being embarrassed at being shut down by the Bulls. The tendency now will be to think the Bulls have a stranglehold on the series, to conclude that the Nets have no answers.
But that's the nature of playoff basketball, and it's silly to conclude, with what we saw in Game 3, that the Bulls are going to come out and play a wildly efficient offensive game Saturday. So close, tight, dramatic and ugly is probably the series we're going to continue to see.
Fortunately for the Bulls, they've made their peace with the only thing that seems to work for them.