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Bulls' drive for No. 2 seed stalls
If the Bulls thought their trip to Wednesday morning's shootaround was rough, look at their path to the NBA Finals.
Getting stuck behind a stalled bus on the New Jersey Turnpike was an omen, and it will look like a Sunday drive compared with the route that now awaits.
The Bulls were stuck in neutral through much of Wednesday night's demoralizing 106-97 loss to the Nets, their 11th straight at Continental Airlines Arena. That the Bulls knew of Cleveland's home victory over Milwaukee late in the third quarter did little to stop the damage.
Their drive toward a 50-victory season and the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed hit an axle-bending pothole, dropping the Bulls to the fifth seed and a first-round rematch with the Heat.
It's the Cavaliers who will face the Nets in the first round and the Raptors-Wizards winner in the second round, with home-court advantage in both.
The Bulls must knock off the defending NBA champion Heat in the first round, where they do own home-court advantage, and would face the winner of the Pistons-Magic series in the second round.
"It's very disappointing," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "We wanted 50 [wins] and the second seed. It just seemed like [the Nets] were more aggressive and the better team. We have to move on."
After a brutal start, the Bulls were within 79-77 early in the fourth quarter when the Nets peeled off a 15-4 run highlighted by Bostjan Nachbar three-pointers on consecutive possessions. Jason Kidd capped it with a three-pointer from directly in front of the Bulls' bench.
Those marked Kidd's first points of the night, but he still was dominant with 11 assists, 11 rebounds, two steals and just about every loose ball.
Josh Boone's activity inside also hurt during this stretch as he was fouled twice and hit two of four free throws. He and Nachbar each scored 15 off the bench.
"The whole night we were playing uphill," coach Scott Skiles said. "We had so many busted coverages and fumbles of the ball. We just weren't sharp."
The Bulls made one last mini-run when Luol Deng scored on a conventional three-point play with 3 minutes 45 seconds remaining and Ben Wallace slammed home a Deng miss on the next possession.
But Vince Carter, who led the Nets with 24 points, followed with a ridiculous three-pointer following a timeout to push the lead back to 11.
"Right from the start, we struggled handling their transition game," Hinrich said. "That got them going."
Indeed, as the Bulls fittingly wore their funeral black road uniforms, they played one of their worst quarters of the season in the first after so much recent dominance. They trailed by as many as 15 after a 17-2 Nets' run was capped by back-to-back three-pointers from Carter and Nachbar
Skiles finally had seen enough, inserting Tyrus Thomas, Chris Duhon and Andres Nocioni after the Bulls opened 4-for-15.
"Right from the jump ball we had busted coverages defensively," Skiles said. "We took some jump shots from 15 feet and we all ran in and opened up their backcourt. Stuff we never do we started doing."
The Bulls pulled to 38-31 in the second, but then came two plays that exhibited how Kidd dominated the first half without scoring. On back-to-back possessions, he stripped Nocioni and Thomas of defensive rebounds and fed Mikki Moore and Nachbar for hoops and an 11-point lead.
"They've had such great years that I can't fly off the handle off one game," Skiles said. "I wanted them to perform well in this environment so they could take that momentum in the playoffs."
Save for a solid performance from P.J. Brown and 28 extremely active minutes from a pain-free Nocioni, nobody played well.
Hinrich had 20 points and nine assists but committed five turnovers. Ben Gordon shot 5-for-15. Wallace sat for 10:55 in the second half because Brown was more effective.
The Bulls went 20-8 after the All-Star break but good vibes were hard to find in a downcast locker room.
"Miami's a team we're familiar with," Hinrich said. "Hopefully, we can get the job done. We have confidence we can. They have so many weapons and experience that it's going to be a tough series.
"Obviously, we didn't get 50, which is disappointing because we came so close. We still had a solid year and have come a long way. Right now our focus isn't hanging our heads about not getting the two seed. It's shaking this off and staying in positive spirits. The playoffs are right around the corner. It's new life. This isn't like we're eliminated from the season off this game."