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Ailing Bulls give Nets all they can handle before losing

Nate Robinson of the Chicago Bulls holds up

Nate Robinson of the Chicago Bulls holds up three fingers after hitting a three point shot against the Nets in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at the United Center. (May 2, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

CHICAGO -- As painful as it might have been for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, his news conference before Game 6 Thursday night was almost comical.

Media members ticked off the names of Bulls suffering from the flu -- Luol Deng, Nate Robinson, Taj Gibson. After each one, Thibodeau said, "Game time.'' Only point guard Kirk Hinrich was ruled definitely out with a calf injury.

Asked who was sickest among his players, Thibodeau said, "Now we're into degrees of sickness? They're sick. I feel great. Couldn't be better.''

By tipoff, Deng, who obviously was suffering from fever and chills, was sent home. So the Nets, trailing 3-2 in the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, had the Bulls right where they wanted them, right?

Not so fast. Marco Belinelli, who replaced Deng in the lineup, became the Bulls' hero du jour, starting with eight points and six assists in the opening quarter on his way to a 22- point, seven-assist night.

But it wasn't enough as the Nets earned a 95-92 victory that tied the series at three games apiece, forcing Game 7 Saturdaynight at Barclays Center.

Belinelli had an open three-pointer from the left corner that could have sent the game to overtime, but it missed long. Joakim Noah chased down the rebound but stepped out of bounds with 6.3 seconds left.

"Jo happened to step out of bounds, but it was a good hustle play," Thibodeau said. "So Marco gets a clean look at a three. I'm good with it."

The Nets' bench outscored the Bulls' reserves 27-7, but Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo gave props to the home team for playing severely shorthanded. Thibodeau used four subs, but only Taj Gibson got double-figures minutes (17-plus). The other three totaled just under 10 minutes.

"If there's a team in the league that plays harder than them, I don't know who it is," Carlesimo said. But he noted that the Nets also had guys playing hurt and sick. Reggie Evans (illness) and Andray Blatche (calf) missed Wednesday's practice and Joe Johnson said he basically is playing on one leg and is little more than a "decoy" because of his plantar fasciitis, which requires a pregame painkiller.

Yet Johnson had 17 points and four assists. "For a 'decoy,' Joe Johnson played real good," Carlesimo said. "It was kind of a 'bloodbath' game . . . It's a heck of a win, but it wasn't X's-and- O's or anything like that. It was two teams playing real hard, and our guys found a way to win."

The question now in this war of attrition is whom the Bulls will have available for Game 7. Asked about a report that Deng was tested for viral meningitis, Thibodeau said, "I haven't heard that."

But Deng's status is up in the air. On the other hand, Thibodeau is hopeful that starting point guard Hinrich might be able to return after missing the past two games.

"There's no guarantees," Thibodeau said. "I'm hopeful he'll be better [Saturday], but if he's not, we have enough."

The last time a Game 7 was played in Brooklyn was the 1956 World Series. Sad to say for the borough, the Yankees won, 9-0. But this is basketball, where the crowd makes more of a difference.

Asked what he expects from the fans, Johnson said, "It's beyond my imagination how it's going to be. But it will definitely be a frenzy in there. The 'sixth man' is definitely coming to play. More than anything, I know Brooklyn will be ready.''

New York Sports