14 Points in 6 Possessions: How the Bulls Accomplished A Ridiculous Comeback

At the 3:18 mark of the 4th quarter in Game 4 of their first round series, the Brooklyn Nets led the Chicago Bulls 109-95.  Over the next 6 possessions, the Bulls would need to play perfect basketball.  They did, scoring 14 points while holding the Nets scoreless to tie the game at 109 with 55 seconds remaining.*  Here is how it happened.

*Quick and dirty math: If one makes the rough assumption that each team had approximately a 50% chance of scoring on each possession, the chances of the Bulls scoring on each possession while the Nets scored on none is 0.024%.  At this point, I tweeted that the game could feature some “Marv-patented gar-bage time.”  Whoops.

Possession 1:

The Bulls’ “perfect” run, ironically, began in the worst way imaginable. C.J. Watson stole the ball from Nate Robinson as he tried to split a double team at the top of the key with the shot clock running down, but Watson missed a fast break dunk.*  It’s worth asking whether Watson would have merely settled for the layup against another team, but tried for the dunk to rub salt in the wounds of the team that released him.  Edit: Jeff Mangurten tweeted that it was Watson's first dunk attempt since 2010, which lends some credence to that theory.

*Marv Albert:  Oh he blows it!

Watson corralled the rebound as no Bulls other than Jimmy Butler (stationed in the dead corner) ran back.  But Butler’s hustle allowed Carlos Boozer to foul Reggie Evans under the Nets basket.  On the tape, Tom Thibodeau clearly orders the foul. Evans would miss both free throws.

Thibodeau’s performance in the last few minutes and overtime was almost flawless, aside from one missed chance for an offense/defense substitution.  He used intentional fouling brilliantly to increase the number of possessions in the game, likely saving the Bulls approximately 40 seconds in the process.*

*I have never understood why teams would intentionally foul when they are ahead.  The last thing you want to do is give the trailing team the opportunity to score points without using much time on a possession.  The only time I can condone it is after the trailing team has run significant time off the shot clock.

Possession 2:

Kirk Hinrich misses an open 3 off a pick and roll with Noah, but Evans is called for the loose ball foul despite the ball bouncing up to the top of the key.   Butler had corralled the offensive rebound anyway, however.  On the ensuing inbounds, Robinson goes off a Noah screen and drills a 3.  Brook Lopez steps out reasonably hard but is loathe to come out far enough to really stop the shot.

Possession 3:

Deron Williams feeds Lopez for a 20 footer at the top of the key off a pick and pop with 12 on the shot clock.  Lopez was wide open, but just missed it.*

*Marv calls Lopez’s outside shot a “standing one-hander.”  Far be it for me to quibble with the master, but it looks like a normal shooting motion to me.

Possession 4:

A Kirk Hinrich and Noah pick and roll goes nowhere, so Robinson and Noah try it.  Lopez shows very well and keeps pace with Nate on the drive, but Robinson throws up a difficult double pump over his shoulder that hits the back rim and drops in.  Good Nets defense, better/luckier Bulls offense.  Timeout with the Nets leading 109-100.

Possession 5:

With 2:17 remaining Boozer fouls Wallace, who bricks two FTs short.  This was another excellent idea by Thibodeau despite the fact that Wallace isn’t a horrendous free throw shooter at 64% and 72% career.  The Bulls needed more possessions, and allowing the Nets to run off a full 24 seconds there could have been fatal to the comeback.

Possession 6:

Noah inbounds the ball, then runs to screen for Robinson on the left wing without ever going down low.  Robinson gets open on a curl toward the lane but pulls up with Williams right behind him and makes a very tough double pumping jumper.  Lopez never leaves the lane on the possession.  109-102 Nets with 2:05 left.

Possession 7:

Boozer and Wallace get tied up on the rebound action for Robinson’s jumper and double technicals are assessed.  The announcers thought it was an intentional foul by Boozer on Wallace again, but Thibodeau wisely abandoned that strategy.  Down only 7 with 2:05 remaining, it was realistic that just getting defensive stops could allow the Bulls to tie the game.

The Nets run a Williams/Lopez pick and roll.  Boozer steps up to the free throw line on the pass to Lopez, and Luol Deng crashes into the paint to pick up Boozer’s man Wallace.  Lopez swings the ball to Joe Johnson for a wide open 3 but Wallace inexplicably holds Deng to prevent him from getting out there, despite the fact Johnson was already open.  However, Johnson misses the 3 as the foul is called.  The Nets again shoot with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Possession 8:

The Bulls run the same Noah/Robinson pin down, but Williams gets over the screen and Nate can’t curl.  Instead, he receives the ball and circles back to his left off another Noah screen to pull up for what would be a really difficult 3.  Lopez steps up to cut off the driving angle, but too far away to contest the shot.  Williams hits Nate’s thigh with his while he’s in the air, a clear foul on a jump shot.  Kerr:  “This is just shocking.”  Robinson drains all three FTs.  109-105 Nets.

Possession 9:

With C.J. Watson handling, the Nets run a Lopez pin down for Williams on the left side of the floor.  The Bulls execute perfectly, with Hinrich staying with Williams and Noah stepping away from Lopez to allow Hinrich a gap to follow Williams.

Williams then isolates and drives, missing a tough contested runner in the dreaded 3-9 foot range.  It’s a 40% shot that misses, and Noah snags the rebound.

Notably, the Bulls’ crowd (at least the portion visible to the camera) doesn’t stand at all until this defensive possession, and then only because urged on by Robinson.  I thought it was a pretty desultory performance from the UC Crowd, which I’ve denigrated quite a bit over the last few years.  While Steve and Marv both noted that the crowd was into it coming out of timeouts in the 4th quarter, it was clearly when the UC “fan-o-meter” was on.  As soon as the action commenced the fans were back in their seats.

The Chicago crowd is still living off its reputation from the salad days of Chicago Stadium, when it was probably the best crowd in NBA history.  Bill Simmons praised the UC crowd on Twitter today, but it was absolutely nothing compared to Oracle Arena last night (which your writer watched from the 200 level).  There was basically no chanting and no standing from the UC crowd until the very end; the Oracle crowd did that the entire game.*

*To be fair, the crowd was great during the Miami streak-snapper this year.

Possession 10:

Robinson gets the outlet on the right side of the floor, now guarded by Watson.  Noah’s screen obliterates him, and while Lopez switches out Nate shakes him and pulls up from the elbow.  Lopez showed much harder this time to prevent the 3 and forces Robinson into a difficult shot, but he hits it. Despite multiple timeouts, the Nets have yet to make any kind of adjustment on the Nate/Noah picks that have accounted for all of the Bulls’ points in the run. Steve:  “One of the great fourth quarter performances I can remember in playoff history.”  Nets 109-107.

Possession 11:

The Nets take a timeout and advance the ball to the frontcourt for the inbound.  However, Robinson hearkens back to his days as a DB for Washington and denies Watson on the inbounds long enough for a 5 second call.  Was it a good one?  The camera doesn’t show exactly when Wallace was handed the ball because they were zoomed in on Nate, but I ran a stopwatch from when the players started moving and it was approximately 4.5 seconds until Wallace released the ball.  It was certainly close enough that Wallace should have called a timeout, especially with two left.

Possession 12:

First chant of the game (Let’s Go Bulls) from the crowd with 1:11 remaining in perhaps the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history.  Brooklyn finally adjusts to the Robinson/Noah pick and roll by reinserting Reggie Evans, who was removed with 3 minutes remaining when the Bulls fouled him intentionally.*

*If Carlesimo believed he was part of the Nets’ best defensive lineup, one wonders why Evans was not inserted once intentional fouling was proscribed with under 2 minutes remaining.

The Nets often have Evans camp out at the top of the key and guard whoever is setting the pick and roll to avoid putting Lopez in space.  But Thibodeau called a genius set to take advantage of what he knew would be coming with Evans back in.  Boozer went to set the screen for Robinson, then rolled to the corner.  As Evans trapped Robinson, Noah screened Evans to allow Robinson to get to the middle of the floor.  Robinson had essentially a 3 on 1 with Lopez under the basket, and threw what can only be described as a cheeky no-look left-handed touch pass to Boozer who finished with a nice reverse.  “And the game is TIED!”

"Percy" Robinson led an amazing Bulls comeback.

So Did the Nets Choke?

Yes, but not too badly.   I tried to enumerate every mistake they made above, but ultimately they really didn’t play that poorly.  On defense, all of the shots they gave up to Robinson were reasonably contested, but they just went in.  The only real problem was the fact that they did not really change strategy on the Robinson/Noah picks until the last possession, but doing so could have led to wide-open 3s elsewhere.  Aside from the dumb 3-point foul by Deron Williams, there wasn’t too much to hate here.  Nate Robinson just made a series of difficult (though not incredible) shots.

Offensively, the story was worse.  The real goat was Gerald Wallace, who missed two free throws and had two pretty awful turnovers to waste 3 of the Nets’ 6 possessions during the run.  Evans missed another two free throws, Williams missed a 40% floater, and Lopez a wide-open 21 footer.  But the offense they ran wasn’t terrible, and the Bulls’ can only really be said to have played great defense on the 5 second call.

With a minute left, Kerr said:  “When I said the Bulls had to string together a couple of stops, I was dead wrong.  All they had to do was give the ball to Nate.”  At the time I quibbled, noting that the Nets hadn’t scored since the run began.  But a closer look at the film shows that it really was just a tremendous performance by Nate Robinson that drove perhaps the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history.

Odds and Ends

  • This amazing comeback is yet another data point in the fascinating Thibodeau narrative.  Many coaches might have pulled the starters down 14 with 3 minutes left.  Instead, Thibs clawed for every advantage in those critical first few possessions, and the Bulls would not have won without his decisions to foul Evans and Wallace.
  • P.J. Carlesimo was badly outcoached in this game.  One terrible decision was calling timeout after Noah’s tip-in tied the score at 11 at the end of regulation.  P.J. went with a 1-4 isolation for Deron Williams that he easily could have called from the bench, while the timeout enabled the Bulls to insert Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.  Gibson contested Williams’ fadeaway in a way Boozer never could have, while Butler blocked Wallace’s attempted tip-in at the buzzer after being inserted for Robinson.
  • The Bulls’ defense on Joe Johnson’s tying shot at the end of the first OT was atypically bad.  They allowed Johnson to curl right into the lane with no help at all, despite the fact there really wasn’t time for him to make another pass.
  • Why don’t players get extra fouls in overtime, or at least in double overtime?  I really have not heard any reason why this should be so, aside from “this is the way we’ve always done it.”  If that’s the best argument there is, I see no reason why amazing games like these should be decided by a war of foul out attrition.  


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