By Steve Lichtenstein
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It hasn’t been the easiest month for this New York sports fan. Part of it is my own fault for not latching on to the New York Giants in my formative years, instead sticking with the Jets through thin and thin. Though both teams can claim first place in their respective divisions, the Giants have proven they are for real while the Jets seem to have once again set their fans up for the Big Tease.
On top of the season-ending injuries to Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes, the Jets’ best two players, I watched in shock as Yankee icon Derek Jeter stumbled into a broken ankle in the first game of the ALCS. With the rest of the lineup looking like they have been swatting flies at the plate this postseason, the Yankees are close to their expiration date.
And I can’t even catch the New Jersey Devils, who, despite losing All Star forward Zach Parise to free agency, rarely fail to field a competitive team. Nope, the NHL owners have decided to lock up the pucks for an indefinite period until they feel they have extracted enough concessions from their employees.
Thankfully, before I had lost all hope, the NBA season finally arrived. It may be only exhibition basketball, but I was hooked watching the Brooklyn Nets open up the Barclays Center last night with a 98-88 victory over Washington.
The score was irrelevant. For over three months, I have been waiting to get my first look at general manager Billy King’s reconstruction effort. Only five players from last season’s finale in New Jersey have crossed the two bridges to grab a spot on Brooklyn’s roster.
After the Nets’ summer makeover, I had no idea whether their chemistry experiment would vault them into the status of serious contenders or result in a Jets-like epic failure, an over-hyped paper tiger.
Not that last night’s game would end the doubt. After all, the Wizards, who will be without point guard John Wall for nearly the next two months with a knee injury, are not exactly the Boston Celtics. Plus, while most teams restrict the starters to the first and third quarters in these early exhibitions, the Nets sent out Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace to close out the game against the Washington reserves and ensure that the 14,219 reported attendees went home happy.
I’m not even too concerned that Williams struggled (11 points on 3-for-11 shooting in 31 minutes) in his first game in the arena that he built. The $100 million man spent his year-plus in New Jersey complaining about everything at the Prudential Center, from the background to the lighting to the lack of fan support. Williams was positively giddy in his new black-and-white threads, even smiling through his jawing session with some scrub named A.J. Price following a hard foul with about a minute to go.
Mostly, Williams was ecstatic about his new toys. Shooting guard Joe Johnson, the pickup that Williams said was a huge contributing factor in his decision to re-up with the Nets, is a multi-dimensional offensive threat. In addition, center Brook Lopez returned from last season’s foot maladies with a solid 18-point, 11-rebound effort in just 25 minutes.
I was keeping closer attention to what occurred when the starting five took a seat. For the last couple of years in New Jersey, the Nets could best be described by the old joke that they had a good bench, but unfortunately it was starting. Guys like Anthony Morrow, Deshawn Stevenson, MarShon Brooks, Sheldon Williams, and even Kris Humphries were counted on to contribute first-string minutes with their backup talents. Only Brooks is still a Net, though he sat out last night with a sore right foot.
So, as important as the Johnson trade was as his first strike, King knew he also needed to go to the market this summer to shop for a new set of reserves.
And it seems King found quite a few bargains. C.J. Watson has been dynamic in the first two games as the third guard, both in spelling and playing with Williams, allowing Williams to play off the ball to create more scoring opportunities running off screens. Watson spent the past two seasons backing up Derrick Rose in Chicago, where his experience from stepping up following Rose’s catastrophic knee injury will prove valuable if the Nets are playing important games in April.
More impressive was the play of center Andray Blatche, who ran himself out of Washington with knucklehead behavior and signed a non-guaranteed deal to play in Brooklyn. The six-foot-11 Blatche was active all over the floor last night, filling up the stat sheet in his 23 minutes. What an improvement over the lead-footed tandem of Johan Petro and Sheldon Williams. If coach Avery Johnson can keep Blatche’s head straight, the Nets may have won a decent-sized jackpot for the price of a lottery ticket.
Of course, not all seeds have blossomed yet. From what I’ve seen, the Nets must have worked out Mirza Teletovic against a chair similar to Yi Jianlian before committing their mid-level exception to him. Teletovic can’t create his own shot and is a statue defensively. As a 27-year old NBA rookie, he may not get much better. He will be fighting for minutes with Humphries, Blatche and Reggie Evans, who at least gives the Nets rebounding and toughness even if he can’t score.
Johnson has his hands full in figuring out the rotation. There are now logjams at almost every position with a little over two weeks until Opening Night versus the Knicks to find a solution. Brooks, when he returns, is not a lock to play over the more defensively-minded Keith Bogans or Josh Childress.
That’s because, in general, the Nets’ offense looked ahead of the defense. The worry was that there were too many mouths to feed with only one basketball. That did not appear to be the case, mostly due to the team appearing to follow Williams’ lead in sharing the ball.
Only Wallace appeared to be uninvolved yesterday, not really comfortable in his role as the shooter from the weak-side corner. That’s not his game. He gets most of his points slashing to the hoop, many times off a fast break. Four of his seven shots last night were from beyond the three-point line. Maybe he was just using the game as a practice.
Johnson was correct in emphasizing defense in training camp, for this is where the unfamiliarity will be felt. Again, there wasn’t anyone like LeBron James, or even humans like Paul Pierce or Carmelo Anthony, on the floor for the Wizards last night, so the stats are somewhat misleading. There’s still a lot of work to do, from preventing penetration into the lane to communicating switches to running out to contest the three-point shooters (without fouling).
Still, the Nets did enough to keep my interest and nothing to make me give up hope. That’s a nice change.
Did you like what you saw from Brooklyn? Be heard in the comments below!