Getting to .500 meant different things to various Nets players, but the consensus after reaching a benchmark that took way longer than anyone anticipated is the importance of staying above the break-even point.
The Nets made things as difficult as possible for the Bulls, who have proven to be among Brooklyn’s worst matchups over the last year.
By getting into passing lanes and disrupting Chicago’s attempts at ball movement, the Nets climbed to .500 for the first time in nearly four months after a wire-to-wire 96-80 victory Monday night.
“It was [nice],” Deron Williams said. “It definitely feels good. This was a good win for us. We talked about it, we’ve had our struggles against the Bulls and to come out and play the way we did was great and tonight defensively we were at our best.”
“We can’t rest right there, that’s the key,” Paul Pierce added. “We hit a benchmark that we’ve been fighting for all season. Now is time to surpass that. Hopefully we can feed off of that and continue to grow as a team, the playoffs are right around the corner but right now is our time to play well and continue to play better than .500 basketball.”
The Bulls had won the previous two meetings with Brooklyn by a combined 33 points while limiting the Nets to 37.9 percent shooting.
“I think the guys really had pride tonight and we said we’re tired of getting pushed around by the Bulls,” Pierce said. “We decided we wanted to take the fight to them, be the aggressor first, because usually it’s been the opposite and I just thought that we were playing with a fire that we don’t always play with.
“I told the guys if we could play like that for the rest of the season, we’re a tough team to beat. We just have to play high intensity night in and night out and play for one another and that’s what you saw tonight.”
Williams led the Nets with 20 points and Joe Johnson added 19 points as they combined on 13-of-22 shooting. Shaun Livingston and Pierce chipped in 14 points apiece while Andray Blatche had 11 points. The Nets shot 46.6 percent (34-for-73) from the field.
“We’ve been through so much with injuries and guys in and out of the lineup,” Johnson said. “We’ve still got a lot of work left to do but this is a big win for us.”
“I think when we were trying to figure it out early in the season, we would have given anything to be back at .500,” Mason Plumlee said. “So it’s just getting back here and now we’ve got to make a push and get a few more wins before the playoffs but it’s better than being a winning team than being a losing team.”
Even if the Nets couldn’t get the open looks, their intent was to maintain active hands in the passing lanes. Chicago had 28 turnovers — the Nets scored 30 points off them — which were the most the Nets had ever forced against the Bulls.
The Nets had 19 steals, tying the NBA season-high established by Miami on Nov. 15 against Dallas. It was also the franchise’s most since getting 20 on March 21, 1989 against the Pacers in a six-point loss.
So even though they allowed the Bulls to shoot 46 percent, they shut down Chicago bigs Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. Noah followed up his triple-double against the Knicks with 10 points and six turnovers while Boozer had 10 points and 13 rebounds but also committed five turnovers.
The Bulls had eight turnovers and trailed 27-16 after the first quarter. The Nets scored the first seven points and forced the Bulls into five more turnovers than their lopsided win over the Knicks on Sunday.
Every starter except for Plumlee had a steal with Livingston leading that category with five. Pierce added four steals while Williams had two steals and Johnson added one steal.
“They were pretty much pressuring us soon as we got the ball,” Chicago guard D.J. Augustin said. “They were up into us. They kind of had us on our heels and they caused a lot of turnovers.”
Still, being a team that never gives in, the Bulls were within 80-71 after Jimmy Butler found Augustin unguarded by Marcus Thornton for a left corner 3-pointer with 6 1/2 minutes remaining.
Following a palming violation by Butler, Williams sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 83-71 advantage. After Noah missed a running hook shot, Blatche found Andrei Kirilenko for a two-handed dunk and moments later Pierce hit a 3-pointer.
After those big shots, the only suspense would be if Jason Collins would see action. Prior to the final timeout, some fans began chanting his name and with 2:50 remaining he headed toward the scorer’s table and was given a standing ovation from many remaining in the crowd when he checked in at the 2:41 mark.
Follow Nets beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.