NEW YORK — With DeMar DeRozan drawing James Harden and Kevin Durant with him on a drive into the paint, Lonzo Ball was all alone on the right wing as he launched a 3, crouched in anticipation and then turned toward courtside fans behind him after drilling a late dagger against the Brooklyn Nets.
Down four rotation players due to health and injuries, the Chicago Bulls continued their surprising start to the season by erasing an 11-point third-quarter deficit to give the Nets a stinging 111-107 loss at Barclays Center on Saturday night.
The Bulls (16-8) have won three straight games and leave New York having beaten the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and the Nets at Barclays Center on this road trip. This is also the second time this season that the Bulls outplayed the preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference in the fourth quarter to hand the Nets a bitter loss, clinching the season series between the two teams.
“You want to be the best, you got to beat the best,” said DeRozan, who picked the Nets apart with 13 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. “Everybody talks about being best but you got to go out there. No matter if you are shorthanded, you want to be the best, you got to go out there and compete against the best.”
The Bulls entered the game shorthanded with Javonte Green and Coby White in health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19. With Patrick Williams (left wrist) already out, the Bulls started Alex Caruso at power forward but he was later ruled out due to a hamstring injury that was bothering him entering the game. Bulls coach Billy Donovan said it was a medical decision to pull Caruso and that he did not know how long Caruso might be sidelined.
The Nets (16-7) looked at this game as a big test for them. They were shorthanded themselves with Joe Harris (ankle) and James Johnson (shoulder) out to go along with Kyrie Irving, who is not with the team. But they were looking to settle a score after losing, 118-95, in Chicago on Nov. 8 and get a quality win over one of the top teams in the conference.
Brooklyn led 71-60 with 6:34 left in the third and appeared to be in control. But that cushion was gone by the 9:28 mark in the fourth. Durant scored nine of his 28 points in the fourth quarter but Harden struggled with his shot, missing 5-of-6 shots in the fourth. The Nets defense allowed Chicago to shoot 52.2% in the fourth quarter. Chicago also enjoyed a 27-to-9 advantage in free-throw attempts for the game.
“We just gotta go out there and play with some force and confidence, like we want to win,” Durant said. “And understand it’s a long game, and just stick with the game plan. It’s a bad, it’s a tough loss. … We didn’t take advantage of being up nine-10 points. We just let them stay in the game and we were supposed to just bury them.”
Harden, who recently admitted he is having difficulty finding balance between being more of a playmaker versus when to be a scorer with Irving not playing, shot just 5-of-21 overall before finishing with 14 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds.
“Blame this one on me,” said Harden. “I had a lot of opportunities at the rim that I didn’t convert that could have settled this game down.”
Durant said he should’ve helped Harden more by making more shots.
“That would’ve took pressure off of him,” Durant said.
At the end, the Nets watched another struggling shooter make the game’s biggest shot. After Durant cut the deficit to 107-105 with a 3-pointer, DeRozan drove and drew Harden and Durant with him in the paint. DeRozan found Ball alone on the right wing and the point guard delivered the dagger 3, just his second of the game. Ball finished 3-for-10 overall and just 2-for-7 from behind the arc.
Ball — who had eight points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three blocks against the Nets — also missed 8-of-10 3-point shots in Thursday’s win over the Knicks. But the Bulls continue to develop chemistry and trust in one another as they moved to within half a game of the Nets for the lead in the East.
“It says a lot about our team,” DeRozan said of the wins against the Knicks and Nets. “How resilient. How we approach challenges. We don’t shy away from them. We accept them.
“… It is difficult to win in this league, especially coming into two hostile environments on the road, playing against two teams and the best team in our conference, to withstand the blow that we took from them throughout the whole game, to buckle down in the fourth quarter and pull out a victory.”