By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets' 96-80 home victory over the Bulls on Monday night may only count as one out of 82, but some games take on added importance.
And no, it didn't have to do with the Brooklyn debut of center Jason Collins -- the first openly gay active player in NBA history -- who drew a standing ovation upon his entrance into the game with 2:40 remaining and a smattering of applause when he committed a foul five seconds later.
Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd can dismiss the notion all he wants, but this win was a significant hurdle the Nets needed to make if only from a psychological perspective.
The Nets finally reached the .500 mark at 29-29 for the first time since November 5. To do it, they had to defeat their nemesis, the team that not only humiliated them in a Game 7 loss at home in the first round of last season's playoffs but also smacked them around in their two previous meetings this season.
And, maybe most importantly, the Nets had to prove to themselves that they could measure up to the more physical teams in front of them who will surely stand in their way when the postseason begins.
OK, so it wasn't their Mount Everest -- that would equate to the NBA title this nearly $200 million (including estimated luxury taxes) roster was expected to compete for before a 10-21 start put a damper on things -- but I'll take baby steps even this late in the season.
The Bulls may have been playing their third game in four nights, but, as Brooklyn rookie center Mason Plumlee noted, the Bulls under coach Tom Thibodeau "don't just give away games. They show up every night and always play hard so if you beat them, you know they didn't take the night off. They're not that kind of team. We earned it tonight."
Plumlee put forth a tremendous effort in his role as understudy to injured starting center and defensive anchor Kevin Garnett, who sat out a second consecutive game due to back spasms. Plumlee was a key cog in a suffocating defense that forced a ridiculous 28 Bulls turnovers, 19 on steals. The Nets converted those turnovers into 30 points, which can be a hot commodity for any team playing Chicago.
"That's as good a defense on the pick-and-roll as we've played all year," said Plumlee. "Guys were getting hands on balls, tipping balls—even if there was just a deflection, that would lead to a turnover. I thought Shaun (Livingston, who had five steals in 24 foul-plagued minutes) was great with his hands and length."
Plumlee played Bulls maniacal center Joakim Noah as well as any Net had in the last two seasons. In 14 total minutes where Plumlee went head-to-head with Noah at the start of the first and third quarters, the Nets outscored the Bulls, 28-14.
Usually Noah tortures the Nets with a thousand pin pricks. He finds teammates for backdoor layups. He crashes the offensive glass for second-chance points. He creates extra possessions with his hustle to secure 50-50 balls. And, for further insult, he nails those hideous-looking mid-range jump shots.
Noah had 10 points Monday night, but the telling statistics were: one offensive rebound, one assist and six turnovers.
"Even though he (Garnett) didn't play tonight," said Plumlee of his preparation for Noah, "he was at shootaround and kind of took me through his (Noah's) tendencies."
Kidd joked that Plumlee "didn't get into foul trouble in the first two minutes" this time, but he also credited Plumlee for his energy, "and guys kind of fed off that."
What was striking about this game was that, for a change, the Nets went after it as hard as the Bulls. They went to the floor to scrap for loose balls. They smothered the post without conceding the three-point line. And whenever Chicago went on a run to close the gap, the Nets didn't fold.
"I think the guys had the pride to say we're tired of getting pushed around by the Bulls," said forward Paul Pierce, who produced a full stat line of 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals in addition to his stout defense on Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer. "We decided we wanted to take the fight to them and be the aggressor first."
Now of course the Nets' challenge is to keep it up. Rebounding continues to be an issue, as the Bulls still managed to dominate the glass, compiling a 43-28 advantage. The Nets face another imposing front line on Wednesday when Memphis visits Barclays Center to start a four-games-in-six-nights stretch.
"We played with a fire (on Monday) that we don't always play with," said Pierce. "I told the guys that if we can play like that for the rest of the season, we're a tough team to beat. We've got to consistently do it."
Pierce continued, "We can't rest right here. We hit a benchmark that we've been fighting for all season. Now it's time to surpass that."
In other words, while Pierce acknowledged the significance of Monday's win, there's still much more of the mountain to climb.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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