A good portion of fans, most I would say, fail to recognize just how long the NBA season is. Goes for the NHL and MLB ones, too. It’s always hard to explain to a lot of them that there are nights in the middle, or maybe on the second of a back-to-back or the last of a four games in six nights, when players just can’t quite get up for it. Maybe you don’t fight over that screen, or go after that loose ball, or can find the spring to get that rebound. There’s a lot of fans who will tell you it’s entitlement or laziness, but it’s just human nature. There’s 82 of these over six months. As wonderful of a job as being an NBA player is, it’s still a job that can slog like any other.
NBA coaches know this. They’ll rant after certain losses, but after others you’ll see them shrug it off. They’re not going to show all their cards before the games really matter. You can’t press those buttons all the time. There are only so many adjustments in the holster, and you need them in the spring.
The Chicago Bulls had beaten the Brooklyn Nets twice this season, with both teams at varying degrees of strength. But that was before the Bulls had become the talk of the NBA, the hot new thing, before they’d really helped themselves to a seat at the top of the Eastern Conference. There was a much heavier buzz about the Bulls last night — thanks to Demar DeRozan’s back-to-back buzzer-beaters, a winning streak, the market, ESPN, the 9 pm start locally — than when they’d played the Nets before.
So it was safe to say that the Bulls had the Nets’ full attention. That got them a 138-112 beatdown that wasn’t that close.
While the Bulls are still beat up — they didn’t have Alex Caruso or Javonte Green or Patrick Williams and lost Derrick Jones Jr. 30 seconds in — this was as thorough of a tonking as it can get. There was no clearer sign of the Nets unveiling all they can be than watching two of them dive on the floor for a loose ball while they were up 30. Or the way the bench reacted in the 3rd quarter as the Nets laid it across the Bulls’ forehead to the tune of 39-19. You want to run in the penthouse? This is the toll.
The problem for the Bulls, and really anyone else in the East, is that at full strength, the Nets will still have the three best players on the court. In Milwaukee’s case, they can claim one of the three best, but it’s still one. They needed the other two to get hurt to beat the Nets last year. No, the Nets haven’t won anything yet together, but they have separately, and they showed the Bulls what pedigree looks like over 48 minutes. They blanketed Demar DeRozan on every possession and dared anyone else to beat them. No one was up for it. Meanwhile, the Nets have Kevin Durant, who some nights could only be guarded by a Klingon. The Bulls don’t have a Klingon.
While there are nights in an NBA season where a team just isn’t there, there are other nights where they very much are. Where everything comes together — national TV game, the team with all the heat, having to catch them in the standings — and you see what it can look like. The Bulls definitely witnessed the strength of street knowledge last night.
There are no “message” games. It’s a fun narrative, but that’s not how things work. A playoff series has completely different parameters. What the Bulls know now clearly, and the Nets knew before, is just how difficult it will be.