By Steve Lichtenstein
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On Thursday the Brooklyn Nets are picking up the pieces from Wednesday night’s 103-73 dismantling in Miami as they turn their attention to Orlando.
That’s not such a horrible thing.
The Heat took the Nets to school with a concise tutorial on how to properly stomp on an outmanned opponent. It was a lesson that might have been more beneficial if it occurred prior to the Nets’ squandering of a 22-point lead versus the depleted Timberwolves on Monday, but it was still useful this early in the season.
The Magic, who host the Nets on Friday night in the first leg of a home-and-home, will serve nicely as Brooklyn’s next test in this section of the curriculum.
Orlando was defiled in the Dwight Howard deal, receiving swingman Arron Afflalo, injured forward Al Harrington and a bevy of benchwarmers and low draft picks for its All-NBA center. Though the Magic opened with a couple of home wins, they have since fallen back to .500 following a hamstring strain to point guard Jameer Nelson.
Even if Nelson is able to return for this series, and if Nets forward Gerald Wallace still needs a few more days to recover from his ankle sprain, the Nets still have a huge talent edge over the Magic.
Especially now that Orlando needs a separate wing in its arena for its M.A.S.H. unit.
I’m tired of reading about the Nets’ whining over missing the “irreplaceable” Wallace. Meanwhile, they got beat by a Minnesota club that played without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, while the Magic have already lost a ton of manpower games in the season’s first week. In addition to Harrington and Nelson, the Magic have also had trouble finding scoring to compensate for losing forward Hedo Turkoglu, out since the opener with a broken hand.
On the other hand, all the other weapons in the Nets’ arsenal are loaded. They have an elite point guard in Deron Williams, an inside presence in Brook Lopez, a proven scorer in Joe Johnson and a solid group of role-playing reserves.
Other than Afflalo, Orlando has been led by a roster of former bench players, such as guard J.J. Redick and Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
It’s been up to rookie coach Jacque Vaughn to find solutions to keep Orlando competitive through all this adversity. Vaughn, like his counterpart in Brooklyn — coach Avery Johnson — was mentored by San Antonio guru Gregg Popovich. Johnson won a championship ring in his seven-year tenure as Popovich’s floor leader, while Vaughn closed his 12-year playing career coming off the Spurs’ bench before taking notes for a couple of years while serving as Popovich’s assistant.
I remember Vaughn from his two-season stint as a backup on the Nets. Back then, I rated him as the worst rotation player in the NBA. His shooting was so poor that he would regularly be left alone no matter where he was on the court. His defense was nothing outstanding, unless you were impressed by his hustle trying to recover from getting beat off the dribble. I always wondered whether Vaughn was such a beast in practice that it convinced the New Jersey brass to entrust him with key minutes for a playoff contender.
It turned out it was just one of Lawrence Frank’s many flaws as a coach — being a believer in players with little on-court value. He later fell in love with guys like Antoine Wright and Trenton Hassell, which is one of the reasons why the Nets regressed every year but one under Frank’s tutelage.
Though it’s only been three games, I’m becoming concerned that Johnson is falling into that Frank trap, particularly as it relates to the inexplicable over usage of forward Mirza Teletovic, the 27-year-old Bosnian rookie.
I haven’t been able to figure out what exactly Teletovic does. Yet, for the second game in a row, Johnson gave Teletovic responsibilities at key points last night, with negative consequences. He may be wearing out the twines at the Nets’ practice facility, but he hasn’t adapted to the increased speed of the game from the Euroleague to the NBA.
The YES microphones caught Heat star LeBron James directing teammate Shane Battier to give Teletovic “no space” and “make him put it on the floor.” Teletovic proceeded to misfire on seven of eight attempts, all but one from three-point land.
More problematic is that Teletovic, listed at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, has grabbed a total of ZERO defensive rebounds in his 25 minutes this season at power forward. You would think he would have recorded one by accident. His lack of aggressiveness on the boards in the fourth quarter was one factor in the Timberwolves’ debacle.
Last night, James and Dwyane Wade took turns subduing any mini-uprising the Nets attempted to mount. In their last gasps, Teletovic missed five three-pointers in the final five minutes of the third quarter while James was all over the stat sheet, finishing the stanza with a three-pointer with five seconds left to extend Miami’s lead to 23 points. Then Wade took over after MarShon Brooks inspired a 6-0 run to start the fourth quarter. Wade backed down Toko Shengelia, another NBA neophyte from Europe, for back-to-back scores to finish off the Nets.
Now, there is no way I am suggesting that it was Teletovic’s, Shengelia’s or Johnson’s fault for the Heat shellacking. It would have taken tremendous effort and efficiency from the Nets’ top players to win that one, and they were nowhere close to that.
And I also realize that there are no “must-win games” in November. I’m well aware of the cliché about sprints and marathons.
However, this is as good a weekend as any to see if the Nets learned anything from their initial missteps. I want to see the Nets step on the Magic’s throat and not let go until the game is safely out of reach. Study the Heat film for tips.
There are playoff expectations here. The Nets may be still experimenting with their rotation, but if they continue to throw away more of these winnable games, they will be in danger of getting left behind at the end of the term.
Is this the same old Nets, or will this team start coming together and living up to expectations? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…