The Brooklyn Nets were trying to forget an epic collapse that ended with a blown 14-point lead and triple-overtime loss just 48 hours earlier. The Nets were playing to avoid playoff elimination, yet they didn't look haunted or tentative at all, not even when the Chicago Bulls came clawing back late again in Game 5. Brooklyn played more like they were tired of hearing of how backup guard Nate Robinson, the littlest guy on the court, was carrying the shorthanded Bulls past them. So, led by center Brook Lopez, they came out Monday night and instead made it a big man's game again.
"I'm trying to finish more around the rim and shoot less jumpers," Lopez said.
But why? "It was win or go home," Gerald Wallace said.
Lopez had his fifth straight 20-point game -- a 28-point, 10-rebound night that rubbed out any questions about how he'd handle his first career trip to the playoffs. Nets backups Andray Blatche and Kris Humphries combined for 21 points.
Starting forward Reggie Evans had 12 rebounds and Wallace, who griped about his playing time over the weekend, made sure the Bulls would not have another miracle comeback on this night. He drilled a 3-point shot, then followed it with a steal and emphatic dunk with two minutes left that finally let the nervous Barclays Center crowd relax, and sent the series back to Chicago for at least one more game on Thursday with Brooklyn down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
It's too early to tell whether the Nets' 110-91 win was just a momentary reprieve from an offseason of bitter what-ifs, or whether this was a sign that this series has swung back the Nets' way for the first time since their Game 1 romp.
"We haven't gotten back in it yet," Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo acknowledged. "We're [still] a day at a time, so "
But give the Nets this: They knew what definitely awaited them if they didn't stop the Bulls -- and especially the 5-foot-9 Robinson -- from beating them again.
Robinson is playing for his fourth team in three seasons. The Bulls, playing without Derrick Rose, won with a hobbled Joakim Noah in Game 4, and then they lost starting guard Kirk Hinrich (sore calf) for Monday's Game 5. With another loss, this time at home, the Nets would've never heard the end of what a thudding season this has been.
Carlesimo, who replaced Avery Johnson during the season, might've been told he wasn't being brought back as early as Tuesday morning, given that GM Billy King just got a contract extension but the interim coach didn't. Point guard Deron Williams, the face of the Nets franchise, would've spent his summer hearing how the series turned because his man, Robinson, did everything at the end of Game 4 that he didn't do. And Wallace? He said the Nets would've slunk into the offseason galled by thoughts that, "We played [Chicago], what, eight times already? And we feel like in all eight games we were in control for the first 42, 45 minutes. And then something always happens. But we feel like we're the better team."
The Nets still have to prove that conclusively. But the way the Nets at least changed the narrative just in time was encouraging to them.
Brooklyn insisted they didn't find out something new in this game as much as they reminded themselves this needn't be a series in which the guards are the story. They can bang and box out, score in transition or get to the foul line at least as well as the Bulls' frontline -- maybe better now that Noah is limping. That was the main takeaway Monday night.
"We're the dominant team inside," Wallace said.
"And we got good games from everyone," said Carlesimo, ticking off how the Nets won the rebounding battle (44-33, including a 17-11 edge on the offensive boards), got to the free-throw line 23 times and scored 21 points in transition. "If you just try to live in the half court and execute against them, you've got no shot."
It would be good for the Nets to remember all of that again on Thursday night.
"In a kind of sick way, I think they felt they were going to go back to Chicago anyway and close us out [there]," Wallace said of the Bulls.
But the Bulls missed a golden chance. For a change, the Bulls didn't close something out -- not the Nets. Now, even though the Nets remain down a game and they'll now have to win on the road to stay alive, the players talked after Monday's game like a team that felt right back in the series. Like they almost expected to win.
Even Lopez, a man who craves the spotlight so little he was actually flummoxed by a postgame question about whether he considers himself a star ("I consider myself a player on the Brooklyn Nets," he finally said after some stammering), felt emboldened to tell a little postgame joke about how he approached his first career playoff elimination game.
"I don't really have a social life," Lopez began. "I like hanging out with the guys here, so I don't want the season to end."
He wasn't the only Nets big man that came up big while Robinson reverted to a mortal 20 points. But nobody was booking a parade down Flatbush Avenue. All it did was earn the Nets another chance to see if they can pull it off again.