CHICAGO — The Bulls debuted a brand-new platform this season called “See Red.’’ The name felt appropriate Friday with the bright red court catching — and blinding — eyes at the United Center.
The court is part of the NBA’s new in-season tournament to drum up early regular- season interest. The Nets, like most, embraced it with curiosity and confusion.
By the fourth quarter, it was just what the league hoped for as both teams traded baskets. Defense proved to be the difference as the Nets won, 109-107, for their third straight victory.
“Even though we’re 3-2, it felt like 1-0,” said Mikal Bridges, who scored 20 points and gave the Nets a 108-104 lead with a driving dunk with 1:13 left. “I wouldn’t think that if there was no in-season tournament, so it was pretty cool.”
The Nets forced a trio of missed shots by Zach LaVine in the final minute. They held their breath on the third after Ben Simmons tapped back a rebound to LaVine and a potential tying shot went off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Instead of the Bulls forcing overtime, the Nets survived to go 3-1 on this road trip.
The Nets allowed only 49 second-half points and had just 11 turnovers against a Bulls team that had been forcing a league-best 17.6 per game entering Friday.
Spencer Dinwiddie’s return provided a boost. He missed Wednesday’s win over the Heat with a sprained ankle but showed no ill effects with seven assists in the first quarter. He finished with 10 points and nine assists and helped push the Nets to a 45-35 lead.
“He makes a difference on our team, without a doubt,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “Having him on the floor, whether it’s starting, whether the group he ran in the second quarter that gave us a lead . . . He’s important to what we do. He gives us an extreme amount of versatility.”
Dorian Finney-Smith (21 points) also came out firing in the first half. His fourth three-pointer of the half put the Nets up 59-58 at halftime as he was perfect from beyond the arc.
He also faced a tall task defending center Nikola Vucevic, who had three inches and 40 pounds on him. Finney-Smith proved up for it early with an emphatic block on Vucevic in the first quarter.
The Bulls slowed the pace in the third quarter and turned up the defense. The Nets shot only 29.6% from the field and had just 19 points. Yet they trailed only 80-78 because they held the Bulls to 35.7% shooting.
Just like Wednesday, they found help off the bench. Dennis Smith Jr., who missed that game with a hip contusion, scored seven points in the fourth quarter.
It was the Nets’ fourth game out of five decided by five or fewer points. After struggling to close out their first two games, they’re figuring out better execution by pushing the pace and being more focused defensively.
“We’re gonna be in a lot of close games, so we got to learn from each one,” said Finney-Smith, who shot 5-for-9 from three-point range. “Feels like we’ve been doing that. We’ve been putting guys in . . . We’ve been running good offense, getting guys in the paint and getting to their shots. But defensively, we definitely locked in that second half.”
Cam Thomas added 17 points and Lonnie Walker IV had 11. The balance allowed the Nets to survive 24 points each from LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
It’ll take time to adjust to the in-season tournament and each team’s colorful court, but the Nets see its potential as more than a mere oddity. After winning Friday, they found a way to enjoy it.
“Overall . . . it’s about adding a little wrinkle,” Dinwiddie said. “That’s always good for the fans. The court will be fun. Anything else we can do to keep entertaining the fans is what we should do.’’