The game between the Chicago Bulls and the Brooklyn Nets, their final tango of the regular season, didn’t start on the best of notes. 36 seconds into the contest, Derrick Jones Jr. hurt himself with an awkward landing and could potentially have a serious knee injury. He did not return to the game.
That was a bad way to start a marquee matchup, a game that pitted the Nets’ big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving against the Bulls’ four-man wrecking ball of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Lonzo Ball. The Bulls had won the first two games of the season series, but Irving was not available for those games.
After that, though, the two teams that atop the Eastern Conference provided the fireworks that NBA fans wanted in the first half. It was a huge back-and-forth contest that saw 5 ties and 4 lead changes. Both teams held a first half lead, with the Bulls going up by as much as five, and then the Nets rallied to push their lead to up to 9. A furious counter from the Bulls cut that lead to 62-60 by halftime thanks to 11 second quarter points from Zach LaVine.
It was the type of game where you saw a little bit of everything from both sides. The high-flying LaVine netted furious slams like the back-to-back dunk champion that he is.
DeRozan was a consistent threat from the midrange, and opened the game showing off his masterful footwork.
Harden, who was missing in their loss against the Portland Trail Blazers, came back and orchestrated the offense masterfully while also finding space to make his favorite stepback jumpers.
Durant, who is always the Nets’ number one scoring threat, also flexed his passing acumen on top of his scoring.
Did I mention that all of these things happened in the first half?
The second half was a completely different story, though. After the Bulls tied the game at 71-71, the Nets went on an insane run and bloated their lead to 101-79 with by the end of the third quarter. The Bulls were stymied by the Nets’ defense and their best offensive weapons went cold, while their opponents seemingly scored at will.
Kevin Durant scored 17 points in that pivotal third quarter. The Bulls as a team only scored 19.
The Nets effectively put the game out of reach with 10:46 left in the fourth quarter after a 7-0 run furthered propped up their lead to 108-79, forcing a Chicago timeout.
This was an important game because it allowed the Nets to catch up a little bit in the race for the first seed. Even though the Bulls won the first two games of the season series, this 138-112 whooping is what they’re going to remember if they face the Nets in the playoffs.
Durant continued to build his own case for MVP with 27 points, 9 assists and 2 steals without having to play in the fourth quarter. James Harden had his hands all over the game with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 16 assists – one dime shy of his career-high.
Irving had a relatively quiet night with 9 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in 25 minutes of play, but his mere presence on the floor makes it nigh-impossible for defenses to double team either Harden or Durant. It also lets them field a wider array of lineups to allow the three stars to get rest. The other two starters, Kessler Edwards and Day’Ron Sharpe, had played in a combined 22 NBA games. Sharpe in particular was great in this game, finishing with 20 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 10 of 14 from the field.
Patty Mills was back to form as well, scoring 21 points while shooting 6 of 8 from beyond the arc.
The Nets don’t need their full trio to all have great games to win. They just need two, while the other creates enough of a threat to force defenses to play honestly. Today was a good example of that.
The Bulls remain atop the Eastern Conference, but the Nets reminded the rest of the league about why they’re among the favorites to win the title.