- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Brooklyn Nets didn't show up this emphatically when this Game 7 against the Chicago Bulls was still there to be won. But afterward, they threw themselves at diagnosing how they squandered away this Eastern Conference first-round series that they never should've dropped to a Bulls team that was losing starting players by the day. The Nets didn't point to how they roared back to make it close. They didn't prattle on about the 17-point deficit they chopped down to four late in the game as if it mattered all that much.
For the Nets, this galling 99-93 loss was a thuddingly bad ending to a schizoprehenic season, and they didn't pretend otherwise afterward.
"I said all along I thought that we were the better team," forward Gerald Wallace said. "And it hurts. ... They came out with a sense of urgency. And we didn't."
How could that happen to the Nets again?
"Put it on my back," guard Joe Johnson said, refusing to blame the plantar fasciitis he's been fighting in one foot for his 2-for-14 shooting night.
The Nets' big men? One after the other, they winced while talking about how the Bulls blew by them to make shot after shot at the rim, or rip down offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive.
Nets' point guard Deron Williams, the franchise cornerstone? He was good, but not nearly as electric or contagiously inspiring as Chicago center Joakim Noah was. Noah backed up his two-day-old prediction that the short-handed Bulls were going to show up on Brooklyn's home court Saturday night and "we're going to win."
Then he went out and played sensationally. He gouged out 24 points on 12-for-17 shooting and added 14 rebounds, seven of them on the offensive end, to drop a guillotine on the Nets' inaugural season in Brooklyn and, almost surely, kill interim coach P.J. Carlesimo's chances of returning on a permanent basis next season, too.
"After we won Game 6 [in Chicago] we felt like this was our series," Williams admitted. "We talked about the word inconsistency all year ... [and] toughness, mental breakdowns. We just tend to have stretches, whether it be a quarter or two quarters, where it seems like the wheels fall off all at once and we can't get it back. And that's what happened tonight. ... You can't do that if you want to be an elite team."
And the shame of it was, the Nets had it all teed up to end this series so differently after outlasting the Bulls on Thursday in Chicago.
The Nets had a chance to become only the ninth NBA team to roar back from a 3-1 series deficit. They were the first professional sports team to be playing a Game 7 on Brooklyn soil since the Dodgers lost the 1956 World Series to the Yankees. They knew Chicago would be without starters Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng for the second straight game, and that the Bulls, desperate though they were, never thought of having Derrick Rose shake off a season of rust and pull off a Willis Reed-like stunt to save them. They were seeded fourth, or one slot higher than the Bulls, so they were also playing at home.
The Nets had all that going for them.
They didn't even start the game that badly.
But the outcome was decided when the Bulls' bench -- or what was left of it, after Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli were moved into the starting lineup -- outplayed the Nets in the second quarter, shoving them into a 17-point halftime hole that the Nets never completely erased despite a furious comeback that saw them outscore Chicago 21-8 to start the third quarter.
But Noah and Belinelli (24 points) steadied the Bulls after that.
And the Nets, as they had so often this season, were left staring at the carpet and berating themselves for what they didn't do, even though they knew better.
"They just had more urgency than us," Wallace said.
How is that possible?
"We didn't really D up at all, and I think that falls back on me," said Nets center Brook Lopez, ignoring that he'd scored more than 20 points in the final six games of his first career playoff series.
All five of the Nets' starters did praise Carlesimo for the job that he did after taking over for Avery Johnson in December. All of them said they'd like him back. But the words rang hollow when cast against the way they played.
Carlesimo, now 63, didn't seem at all concerned about his fate immediately after the game as much as the fact that the Nets had just lost a game that, to a man, they believed they should've won. Asked if he could sum up the year, he apologized and said sorry, it was too soon.
"At this point, it is just very hard to step back and have perspective, because it is such a gut wrench to lose this way," Carlesimo said. "There's no magic to playing in this building, or just that because it's back here, we're going to win the game."
No. The Nets went down the way they played all season.
They were consistently inconsistent to the end.
Now the Bulls were moving on to play Miami while the Nets cleared out of their locker room and into the night as fast as they could, berating themselves for what could've been.
Wallace, the last of them to leave, muttered, "We're at home. It's a Game 7 ... We were supposed to be in the second round, we were supposed to beat the Bulls, we were supposed to be the team playing Miami. And right now" -- here Wallace shook his head one last time -- "there ain't nothing we can do about it."
Nothing but watch at the final buzzer as the Bulls' Taj Gibson walked off with one hand high in the air, waving Brooklyn goodbye.