All throughout the series, Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo has countered claims of his team being gutless by talking up the resiliency of the Nets.
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That claim and counterargument were on display in two contrasting halves during Game 7 against the Bulls.
On one side was an awful first half which saw the Nets fall behind by 17 at halftime. On the other side was a spirited come back in the third quarter which shaved 10 points off of the deficit.
However, the first half ultimately came back to burn them as their first season in Brooklyn ended with a disappointing 99-93 loss on Saturday night.
“I think they had more energy than us in the first half and that really determined the game,” Brook Lopez said. “It’s tough; they just outplayed us. There really wasn’t anything specific that we really did and I think that falls back on me. It’s my job to contest the shots at the rim and back us up when we get beat. I just didn’t do that tonight.”
“They played like they wanted to keep playing, like they didn’t want their season to end,” Gerald Wallace added. “We didn’t do anything in the first half.”
They won 49 games to earn the right to host Game 7, but wound up losing to a team saddled with illness and injury. Chicago won with Derrick Rose not playing a minute, Kirk Hinrich missing the last three games with a calf injury, Luol Deng missing the last two with an illness and Joakim Noah playing through plantar fasciitis.
“We didn’t want to go out like that this,” Lopez said. “We competed, we got better this season. We achieved a lot of our goals, but not all of them. It’s very frustrating.”
“That’s a heckuva a hole to dig against a team that’s competing the way they’re competing,” Carlesimo said. “We really believed we could be the ninth team to come out of that [3-1] hole. It wasn’t meant to be.”
Most of the team is expected back next season but the status of Carlesimo remains uncertain even if players praised him for leading the team to a 38-23 record after replacing Avery Johnson on Dec. 28.
“I think he did a great job of leading us,” Deron Williams said. “I’d love to see him back but as you know that’s not up to me.”
The Nets could have given upper management more of a reason to keep Carlesimo but they encountered an unstoppable force in Noah.
Noah torched the Nets' frontline for 16 points and five rebounds in the first half and 24 points and 14 rebounds overall. Marco Belinelli was also a force, scoring 14 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter.
“It’s disappointing,” Williams said. “When we won Game 6, we felt like this was our series and they came out and played a great game.
“Noah is a warrior. He had a monster game and we really had no answer for him tonight.”
The best way the Nets could counter Noah’s dominance was by getting a standout performance from at least two of their big three.
It didn’t quite happen.
Lopez finished with 21 points but was 9-of-20, while Joe Johnson missed his first six shots and finished with six points on 2-of-14 shooting.
“I don’t make excuses,” Johnson said. “If I was out there on the floor, then I was able to go. So I don’t blame my foot for anything. It was just a terrible game.”
After they went 3-for-17 in the second half Thursday, the trio was a combined 7-for-21 in the opening half Saturday and 19-for-51 total in Game 7.
Williams finished with 25 points and seven assists but it was not enough.
The Nets scrapped their way back in the game by outscoring Chicago, 31-21, in the third quarter, highlighted by 11 points from Gerald Wallace. The rally brought the deficit to 82-75 entering the fourth but they couldn’t continue the momentum.
“We felt like it, being at home and the energy from the crowd if we could keep it going,” Wallace said. “We were down 17 at halftime and there’s only so much you can do and they came back with the fourth quarter.”
The Bulls also struggled scoring but they took an 84-76 lead when Carlos Boozer broke free from a double team and drove in for a layup. The Nets missed their first eight shots of the fourth quarter and fell behind by double digits (86-76) on Boozer’s easy layup as three defenders watched.
Brooklyn scored its first basket of the fourth quarter on Lopez’s tip in with 6:45 left and then cut it to 86-81 on a 3-pointer from Williams with 6:13 remaining just before Jimmy Butler could get over for the help defense.
Following a timeout and with the crowd at its loudest volume of the night, Boozer missed an open layup but Nate Robinson buried a deep jumper just before Lopez could close out for an 88-81 edge.
After Lopez missed a 15-foot jumper, Robinson missed a layup but the Bulls got the rebound and Belinelli made it a double-digit game by hitting a 3-pointer with 4:52 left.
The Nets again made it a single-digit game (91-83) when Johnson found a cutting Lopez for a layup but Noah glided to the hoop for another layup without much resistance. Wallace made it 93-85 with a layup at 3:01 and the Nets made it a five-point game on Williams’ hard drive and subsequent foul shot with 2:26 remaining.
The decibel level rose once again as the crowd implored the Nets to defend but they gave up another layup, this time to Belinelli. The Nets made it a five-point game with 1:17 to play on Lopez’s put back of a Wallace missed 3-pointer but could not cut it any further as Johnson badly missed a corner 3-pointer with 38.9 seconds remaining.
The Nets made it a four-point game (97-93) on Williams’ fourth 3-pointer of the night with 26.9 seconds remaining. After Belinelli sank two foul shots with 26.1 seconds to play, Williams badly missed a 3-pointer and Johnson airballed a 3-pointer and the Bulls celebrated while the Nets walked off the court in disappointment as the PA announcer wished the fans a happy summer.
Follow Nets beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.