Wednesday night’s marquee matchup between the Chicago Bulls (27-12) and Brooklyn Nets (26-14) began with the atmospheric feel of a playoff game – fitting for the Eastern Conference’s top two seeds.
It ended with the Bulls’ second-largest margin of defeat of the season.
"We got our ass kicked tonight," said DeMar DeRozan.
"We got an ass whooping," concurred Zach LaVine.
Indeed, the Nets rode an avalanche of a third quarter to a 138-112 victory, and made quite the statement in the process.
Here are 10 observations:
1. Thirty-six seconds into the game, Derrick Jones Jr. landed awkwardly on his right leg attempting a jump pass to LaVine in transition, then crumpled to the floor in obvious pain. He was eventually helped off the floor by multiple Bulls staffers (while not putting much weight on his right leg) and minutes later ruled out with a right knee injury.
Alfonzo McKinnie tapped in and immediately assumed the Kevin Durant defensive assignment. He swished a corner 3-pointer in the first quarter and generated a handful of extra possessions on the offensive glass in the third, but also racked up five fouls as the game wore on.
"He (McKinnie) was in a tough spot tonight, and it wasn't only defensively. He's really not played a lot of four (power forward) for us," Donovan said, later noting his aggressive contributions in the third. "He's going to have to learn how to play at that spot with the rest of the group."
2. The Nets led 38-31 after a first quarter that saw a number of highlight-reel plays on both sides. The basketball was highly-entertaining.
But Brooklyn found an advantage at the free-throw line, where they shot 9-for-12 in the opening frame, drawing eight Bulls fouls. Worse: Ayo Dosunmu (with three personals) and Coby White (with two) both found themselves in foul trouble in the first quarter. Troy Brown Jr. (three) wasn’t far behind them early in the second. McKinnie picked up his fourth early in the third and fifth before the start of the fourth.
All tough developments given Green and Caruso’s absences, plus Jones Jr.’s early exit. The Nets shot 28 free throws by game's end.
3. Another tough development: The Bulls reverting back to their 3-point-shooter-fouling ways. James Harden drew two three-shot fouls in the first half – and canned another stepback 3-pointer – with White and Brown Jr. were the culprits.
Even beyond his eight free-throw attempts, Harden was a matchup nightmare in isolation and playing off Durant double-teams, scoring 25 points and slinging 16 assists. He lingered in the game until the 6:14 mark of the fourth quarter – and the Nets ahead by 35 points.
4. The Bulls fell behind by nine points early in the second, but hung around behind some sublime shotmaking of their primary scoring duo – at the half, LaVine (17 points, 6-for-9 shooting) and DeRozan (15 points, 6-for-11) had over half of the team’s points.
A seven-point spurt from LaVine at the end of the second quarter – which featured a contact layup, steal and two stepback jump shots – drew the hosts to within 62-60 at the break.
5. But the game got away in a hurry in the third quarter. The Nets won that period 39-19 – and engineered a 21-4 run in its final six minutes – to lead 101-79 entering the fourth. Brooklyn shot 12-for-18 in the period (5-for-9 from 3-point range, 10-for-11 from the free-throw line), while holding the Bulls to 30.4 percent shooting and six turnovers at the other end.
Those six minutes sucked the life completely out of what from pregame through halftime was an electric United Center atmosphere.
A 7-0 run in the first 74 seconds of the fourth – meaning, a 108-79 advantage – prompted a frustrated Billy Donovan timeout. After that, the Nets tacked on another six points before a LaVine layup gave the Bulls their first points of the fourth quarter – and briefly interrupted a 33-4 Brooklyn run.
By night’s end, the 26-point defeat tied the Bulls’ second-largest of the season.
6. Durant was masterful throughout, finishing with 27 points (7-for-10 shooting, 10-for-11 on free throws) and nine assists. Without the personnel to match him 1-on-1 – though McKinnie and Lonzo Ball did what they could – the Bulls double-teamed him regularly, and he consistently made correct passing reads to get the Nets efficient offense out of them.
Further, he (3-for-4), Harden (5-for-8) and Patty Mills (6-for-8) combined to shoot 14-for-20 from 3-point range, making up the majority of the Nets’ scorching 17-for-32 long-range shooting.
7. The Nets also flipped the Bulls’ identity on their head, dominating the fastbreak (19-9) and turnover game by scoring 28 points off 17 Bulls giveaways – 13 in the second half alone.
Save for a few early highlights, the Bulls were largely unable to break out in transition in their own right, especially with the Nets shooting a whopping 56.3 percent. That allowed the visitors to set their defense for the majority of the Bulls’ offensive possessions.
8. Donovan after the game opined the Bulls allowing too many "easy baskets." And it's true: Between fastbreak points (19), second-chance points (14) and free-throws (23), Brooklyn scored 56 points that Donovan deemed the Bulls, in his words, as having control of.
"When you want to play late in playoffs," Donovan said, "easy baskets are the most valuable thing that you can get. Our transition defense gave up easy baskets. We gave up transition 3s, layups. Second-chance points. We fouled. Those are the easiest points you can give."
Donovan refuted the idea that those lapses are rooted in poor effort, instead emphasizing the need for better focus and consistency on the defensive end, which he's stressed for weeks as that side of the ball has seen some slippage.
"This can be something that can be good for our guys," Donovan said. "I'm hopeful. Because it is only one game, whether you lost by one or 30-something."
9. Donovan declined to attribute any of the above to the Bulls' missing defensive players. None of them would have made up for the Nets' second-half onslaught.
"When people talk about Javonte, and talk about maybe Alex, and I don't know where Derrick's situation might be at right now," Donovan said. "That's got nothing to do with running back in transition, blocking out, not fouling. It has nothing to do with those guys."
Still, their energy is something the Bulls are searching for.
"The heart and soul of the team that we kind of lean on to bring that super edge, especially defensively," DeRozan said of Caruso and Green. "We haven't had (that). We kind of feed off those guys. So once we get them back, I'm pretty sure we'll be right where we left off at."
The Bulls slipped to 12th in defense after allowing an opponent season-high 138 points to Brooklyn; they rank 19th in defensive rating since Dec. 19, when their recent win streak began.
10. The Bulls maintain a 1.5-game lead on Brooklyn for the East’s one seed, and have already won the season series with a 2-1 record. Still, this one leaves a sour taste. Though Kyrie Irving (nine points, three assists) didn't make a particularly loud impact, the almost fully operational Nets looked like the cream of the Eastern Conference crop.
"We knew they was going to come in and try to get their get-back," DeRozan said. "Now it's about how we respond from this."
"We have and we had a chip on our shoulder," added LaVine. "We can use this as fuel to get us back with that edge."
Next up: A chance to do just that against the Golden State Warriors, who are seeded second in the West, on Friday. Even without Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, another tall task.