NEW YORK – Time for the Nets’ biggest game in Brooklyn.
The Nets have brought their first-round series against the Bulls to a Game 7, a victory away from equaling the largest playoff comeback in NBA history. And they’ve brought it back home, where Barclays Center has to be more than a beautiful, $1 billion building.
They are counting on a true home-court advantage against whichever banged-up Bulls can take the floor tonight.
“The reward for the way we played in the regular season is that this Game 7 in the first round is in our building. So I’m just very confident our guys are going to take advantage of the opportunity and continue to do what they’ve done all year,” Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said Friday.
The Nets never hosted a Game 7 during their 35 years in New Jersey, dropping the only one they ever reached at Detroit in 2004. But they get one right away in their first season in Brooklyn, which looked unlikely just a week earlier.
The Bulls were a win from closing it out after rallying for a triple-overtime victory last Saturday, but a combination of the Nets’ play and the Bulls’ pain has Brooklyn poised to become the ninth NBA team to win a series after trailing 3-1.
The key tonight is to play as hard now that it’s all even as they did when they were behind.
“I think that’s a big, big concern, to continue the desperation with which we’ve played,” Carlesimo said during a conference call. “Our mantra’s kind of been the last couple of games to win and go on and get it back it Brooklyn for Game 7, and we certainly can’t think that we’ve done the hard part already. What’s left is going to be more difficult than the last two games and I think that’s going to be a challenge tomorrow.”
The challenge for Chicago is putting together a healthy team. Kirk Hinrich has missed the last two games with a bruised left calf and Luol Deng is so sick that he may be forced to spend Friday night in the hospital after missing Game 6. He wrote on Twitter that he would be at Game 7 if he was cleared to travel.
Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson played with the flu Thursday, Derrick Rose still isn’t back, so the Bulls will have to battle their way through tough circumstances at least one more time.
“It’s going to be a fight,” guard Jimmy Butler said. “The tougher team is going to get the win.”
Or the healthier one.
The Nets have clearly caught a break with the injury to Hinrich, whose absence has made things much easier for point guard Deron Williams, followed by the Bulls’ illnesses. But they also appear to have a deeper roster even if Chicago was healthy, with reserves such as Andray Blatche and former Bulls guard C.J. Watson making key late-game contributions. Their reserves outscored Chicago’s 27-7 on Thursday.
“We’ve dealt with that all season. We’ve been short-handed from the start. We lost more guys along the way,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “These guys have responded all year. I felt we were in position in Game 5. I felt like we were in position in Game 6. So we have to play our best game tomorrow.”
The winner opens the second round Monday at Miami, having survived a two-week beating and then getting just one full day off to face a powerful Heat team that will be well-rested after sweeping Milwaukee.
“If you start thinking about the next series, you’re not going to be in the next series, so I think that what’s served us well so far is taking it a day at a time,” Carlesimo said. “If we don’t manufacture the same kind of desperation, the same kind of energy to match or exceed Chicago’s energy, than we’re not going to have to worry about who’s next.”
The Phoenix Suns are the last team to win a series after trailing 3-1, beating the Los Angeles Lakers in 2006.
The Nets believe they can do it, having built double-digit leads in each of the last four games, winning the only two blowouts in the series and appearing capable of cracking the Bulls’ respected defense. Even in Game 6, when they escaped with a 95-92 victory, they rang up 60 points in the first half.
Forward Gerald Wallace has said they believe they are the better team, but the Nets realize how difficult the Bulls will make it to complete the comeback.
“Obviously, they’re going to give us a fight in Game 7,” center Brook Lopez said.
A few Nets veterans have Game 7 experience and Carlesimo isn’t worried about the ones who don’t.
“We’re not talking brain surgery here, we’re talking a basketball game,” he said.
Chicago is 0-6 on the road all-time in Game 7s.
Opened last September, Barclays Center has quickly become a top entertainment venue — a Rihanna concert scheduled for Saturday was postponed until Tuesday after the Nets’ victory Thursday.
Now the Nets are eager for the most important basketball game there. So is Chicago’s Joakim Noah, who grew up and played in high school here.
“I think we’re ready,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting. Let’s get it done.”