Published April 19, 2013
| 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 like the way they played versus Miami in late March. Williams will fill the boxscore against the Bulls. The question is who will follow the talented point guard? It will be a battle for six or seven games with the Bulls using the underdog label as their motivation.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: BULLS in 6