Nets 100, Bulls 99

The Baby Bulls moved into adolescence last season, with their unlikely ascension from league-wide whipping boys to defensive-minded playoff team. After advancing to the playoffs for the first time since Michael Jordan retired from the club in 1998, the Chicago Bulls got some much-needed lessons in NBA life.

First came the tutorial in DNA testing: Center Eddy Curry, one of the cornerstones of the Bulls' dramatic turnaround, was shipped to New York in a controversial trade that had more to do with concerns over Curry's heart than his ability. Then came the class in economics: Tyson Chandler, who like Curry turned pro out of high school four years ago, signed a six-year, $64 million deal and earning a starting job. And finally, the lesson that life isn't always fair: Ben Gordon, last year's sixth man of the year who spent most of the summer in the gym in hopes of becoming a starter, was told he would again be better as a reserve.

After all that, the Baby Bulls can officially be called the Pubescent Bulls. They are going through that period of self-discovery, still trying to figure out who they are while fully aware of how they got here.

"We're kind of in that middle ground," forward Othella Harrington said before the Bulls lost Saturday night to the New Jersey Nets, 100-99, at Continental Airlines Arena. "We don't really have an identity yet."

Saturday night was a classic example of the Bulls' uncomfortable growth process. They showed considerable gumption overcoming a seven-point deficit in the last three minutes to take a three-point lead with 18 seconds left, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion. With the Bulls up two points in the closing seconds, Gordon (23 points) missed a free throw, and Nets point guard Jason Kidd (10 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds) grabbed the rebound, raced up the court and spotted Richard Jefferson, who completed a three-point play with 1.5 seconds remaining. Jefferson and Vince Carter, who blocked Andres Nocioni's shot as time expired, finished with 28 points apiece.

The Bulls fought back with a burst from third-year guard Kirk Hinrich, who scored 14 of his team-high 26 points in the fourth quarter, and smothering defense -- Chandler blocked a shot and took a charge during a momentum-changing swing -- something Bulls Coach Scott Skiles has stressed from Day One.

"You can't stray far from our formula that we win with," Skiles said. "A lot of situations where athletically we're a little overmatched, we know we've got to make up for it by defending and hustle."

The Bulls realize they can't have another season like a year ago, when they were able to recover from an 0-9 start to finish the season 47-35 and earn the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

"It's going to be harder than it was last year," Chris Duhon said. "We were able to sneak up on people last year, with our past record and our slow start. People were surprised with how we were able to play. I think this year, I think we have the respect from everybody in the league that we're going to be a team that plays hard every night. So, we're going to have to play harder."

The trade of Curry left the Bulls without their leading scorer from last season and Chandler without his favorite running mate.

"At first it was kind of tough because we've been together about it all," said Chandler, who has added a little more muscle and facial hair since his breakout campaign last season.

Chandler has assumed Curry's spot in the middle and Skiles said that with the additions of Michael Sweetney (14 points), Darius Songaila and Tim Thomas, the Bulls have the front-court depth to withstand the loss of Curry.

"Eddy was big for us but he was also a high turnover player and there were times when we went in another direction anyway," Skiles said. "So, everybody's got to do it [offensively]. We don't have one guy who can do it."

Gordon has accepted his responsibility to provide instant offense off the bench for the time being, but added that he's just another piece for the Bulls.

"It's no doubt in my mind I can be a starter, but that's not my role," Gordon said. "It wasn't our scoring that got us there. We didn't have any all-stars. It was our defensive intensity. That's the key to this team being successful. You got to continue to do that and we can be good as last year and maybe better."

Box score, E15