After making their long climb to first place in the Eastern Conference with a 20-3 run that was best in the NBA over that span, the Nets faltered Sunday afternoon at United Center in Chicago, where they suffered a 115-107 loss to a remodeled and much-improved Bulls team.
To make matters worse, Tyler Johnson suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee and left the game with 9:26 left in the fourth quarter, and Landry Shamet also was pulled after suffering what appeared to be a minor injury. Johnson is expected to undergo examination Monday and undoubtedly will miss the second half of the Nets’ back-to-back set against the Knicks at Barclays Center.
"We just weren’t real sharp, didn’t shoot the ball particularly well," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "We didn’t have the requisite pace for our team to be as dynamic as we are offensively. More importantly, I thought defensively we needed to be more active, scramble more, be more decisive. Not a great performance by us, but we’ll learn from it and keep going."
Asked for an update on Johnson and Shamet, Nash said, "We’ll see how they look in the morning. Tyler’s going to get his knee evaluated and probably a scan. All we can do is wait for the scan and then decide. Hopefully, it’s not bad."
Trailing by 17 after three quarters, Nash began the final period with his second unit as if anticipating saving as much energy as possible for the Knicks. But the Nets scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter, cutting the Bulls’ lead to 89-80 when Jeff Green hit a three-pointer with 10:46 left to play. After Johnson went down moments later, Nash put starters Kyrie Irving, Bruce Brown and Joe Harris back in the game, going with a small lineup that left starters Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge on the bench.
That group put together an 18-9 run that included eight points from Green as they cut the Bulls’ lead to 109-102 on an Irving layup with 2:01 left, but after falling behind by 18 points in the third period, that was as close as the Nets could get.
Irving topped the Nets (34-16) with 24 points and added 15 assists, but he struggled through a 12-for-27 shooting effort. Green added 21 points off the bench, but the Nets allowed the Bulls to shoot a torrid 55.1% (43 of 78). The Bulls got 25 points from Zach LaVine, 22 points and 13 rebounds from Nikola Vucevic and 19 points from Tomas Satoransky. That trio shot a combined 26-for-44 from the field.
"We couldn’t get as many stops as we needed tonight," Irving said. "In the second quarter, they created separation and we were playing catch-up and they just kept coming at us. You’ve got to give the Bulls credit. They came to play, and they made shots."
Even though the Bulls came in on a six-game losing streak, the Nets were facing a radically different team that acquired Vucevic and Daniel Theis four games earlier at the trade deadline to improve their frontcourt. Vucevic faced the Nets three times earlier this season with the Magic and averaged 28.0 points in those games.
Nash tried his 25th different starting lineup, incorporating Griffin with Aldridge in the front court for the first time. But the Bulls finished the second quarter on a 20-7 run that included nine points by Satoransky to build a 57-46 halftime lead that grew to 18 points midway through the third period.
"We experimented with a big lineup," Nash said. "It was very unlike us. I don’t love it for us. Having said that, it’s hard to judge it on one performance . . . but going forward, that’s not something I think we’ll see a ton of."