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Lichtenstein: Johnson Asleep At Wheel As Nets Blow Lead

(credit: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

(credit: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns

Wake-up call for Nets coach Avery Johnson:  Your Russian owner just committed over $300 million to bring a winning team to his new palace in Brooklyn. I’m guessing he’s not too pleased after watching your embarrassing 107-96 home loss Monday night to the depleted Timberwolves.

Coach, you’d better get your act together quickly or you just might be transferred to a team in Siberia in time for the winter solstice.

With Mikhail Prokhorov in attendance, Johnson seemed to have taken an Ambien at halftime, in a fog and clueless as to how to change the direction of his team as it blew a 22-point third-quarter advantage.  The Timberwolves, a United Nations collection of unknowns playing without injured stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, outscored the Nets, 32-10, in the fourth quarter.

Just because this is only Game 2 of a marathon six-month season doesn’t mean that Johnson should be given a free pass. The days of acceptable losses ended when the team ditched New Jersey.

The Nets were simply outworked and outcoached.  Though I heard Nets’ TV analyst Greg Anthony marvel at Brooklyn’s size advantage at all positions, the Nets were pounded on both boards in the second half.

Because Johnson’s answer was to go small.  I know the cameras looked for a built-in excuse by showing hobbled forward Gerald Wallace in his suit and walking boot on the sidelines, but Nets general manager Billy King worked to give Johnson the depth he needed to withstand one injury.  I saw too much of Joe Johnson and MarShon Brooks at forward as Minnesota countered with a trio of trees in Andrei Kirilenko, Dante Cunningham and Niko Pekovic.

Pekovic in particular was trouble for Nets center Brook Lopez.  It’s nothing new.  By now, every outlet in the metropolitan area has opined on Lopez’ difficulties in the rebounding department.   So you would think that Johnson would recognize the necessity of having complementary players on the floor so as to not undo the positive results Lopez can deliver on the offensive end.

Where was Reggie Evans in the fourth quarter?  He does only a few things well, but one of them is rebounding.  He’s not going to be pushed around by Dante Cunningham.  If Evans’ lack of offense was a concern, why not pair Lopez with Andray Blatche?  There’s no rule that states that you can’t have two players labeled “centers” on your depth chart appear on the court at the same time.  Anthony raved about Blatche’s versatility, so when will the Nets take advantage of that?

Instead we were treated to NBA rookie Mirza Teletovic, who played all of seven seconds in the first half, and Kris Humphries, the $12 million man with hands of stone.

Teletovic may have closed out the half with a three-pointer to put the Nets ahead, 62-47 and looked like he was improving on his defense of the high pick-and-roll, but he was shut out on the boards.  What was he doing on the floor of a close game?  Teletovic re-entered with the Nets up by 13 with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.  By the time Johnson mercifully removed him, having seen enough of Kirilenko and Cunningham continuously extending Minnesota possessions with superior position on the offensive glass, the game was tied at 92-92 with 6:29 to go.

Yet Humphries was worse.  In a two-and-half minute span, Humphries failed to secure a defensive rebound, with Cunningham ripping the ball out of his hands and putting in a layup, then dropped a catchable interior pass for a turnover, and finally was out-jumped by Cunningham on a long rebound of a J.J. Barea miss.

Later in that same Minnesota possession, Johnson went EXTRA small, placing Joe Johnson at power forward.   That led to the uncontested Alexey Shved runner that gave Minnesota the lead for good with 2:35 remaining.  About a minute later, when Lopez blitzed a high screen, Johnson was left to protect the rim from a cutting Pekovic .  The mismatch resulted in an easy five-footer that put Minnesota up, 100-96.  Another turnover was followed by a wide-open Chase Budinger three-pointer and the game was over.

Johnson has a lot to learn about matchups.  With only five returning players from a year ago, it would seem fair if we were to allow the Nets some time to build the necessary chemistry.  Except that last night was inexcusable.  The Nets were outscored, 11-0, in the final 4:13 by an opponent that mostly used only two players (Pekovic and Barea) in that span who were members of the Timberwolves in 2011-12.

The ball movement that ignited the offense in the first two-and-a-half quarters disappeared.  The attack devolved into a series of isolations for either Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brooks or Lopez.  There were too many rushed attempts with the shot clock running down.  Their drives to the hoop were routinely swatted away by Minnesota’s taller help defense.  This is far from what Prokhorov imagined when he signed those contracts.

It was a Jet-like loss, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This was against an inferior opponent that got thumped in Toronto the previous night.  In a half hour, I went from being excited about an undefeated Nets’ squad’s trip to Miami tomorrow for a statement game versus the defending champs to worried about whether they can conquer Orlando on Friday to get back home at .500.

Wallace, who was injured in the opener (where the Nets nearly blew a double-digit second-half lead at home against the Raptors, another lottery-bound team) on a play that in my opinion should be partially blamed on Johnson’s decision to keep Evans on the floor for a late-game offensive possession, might miss both contests in Florida.

It’s up to Johnson to conjure a better plan in the end-games.  When the Nets were floundering in their final Jersey seasons, few cared about Johnson’s tactics.  If he doesn’t improve, Prokhorov may eventually decide to send him on a longer road trip.

Same ol’ Nets? Vent away in the comments below…