By Steve Lichtenstein
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As “statement games” go, the Nets’ 102-97 victory over Boston last night should probably be declared in a whisper.
The Nets squeaked by the visiting Celtics, who were on the second leg of a back-to-back and minus All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Plus any mid-November statement in an NBA season has to be taken like a result from a current 2016 Presidential poll—it has very little predictive value.
Still, this one was important to the Nets, who now take their 5-2 record to the west coast riding a four-game winning streak. As a New York sports fan, I relish any win over Boston, even if it’s World Team Tennis. But more significantly, if the Nets want to accomplish anything this season, they have to defend their home floor, even while many of them are still just getting a feel for the lay of the land at the Barclays Center.
And, Rondo or no Rondo, the Celtics are a tough out. They are experienced but also have the speed to beat teams with their fast break. They are well-coached on both ends and have solid depth. If not for the 15 offensive rebounds they surrendered to the Nets in the first half, they could have run the Nets off the floor early like they did in a preseason game. Then it took a series of missed uncontested jump shots by Brandon Bass and a pair of blown free throws from the usually reliable Paul Pierce for the Nets to head to the airport on a high.
Coach Avery Johnson knows that his new-look Nets are a work-in-progress. Bumps in the road are to be expected. After opening the season with a slate of mostly cupcakes save for one pasting from the defending champion Heat, Johnson should find this latest status report informative.
That’s because he had to find answers on the fly in the fourth quarter to pull the game out.
This time Johnson may not have had the luxury of a full 20-point lead as per the script from the Nets’ previous games at Barclays, but again he had to adjust when the Nets rejected the prosperity from a double-digit margin in the third quarter. His bench was not as big a factor as it was in prior games (that could have been because Johnson did not keep either Deron Williams or Joe Johnson on the floor with the subs, going instead with a five-man unit that was asked to face a lineup that included the Celtics’ starters). Once the Celtics remembered how to box out on their defensive boards, the Nets’ offense stagnated.
While the Celtics worked every possession to move the Nets’ defense out of position, the Nets continued to rely too much on one-on-one isolation plays and quick long-range field goal attempts. Once the offensive rebounding well dried up, Boston took advantage of many ensuing fast break opportunities.
That meant that, for one of the few times this season, the Nets had to come from behind in the fourth quarter. I had no idea whether the Nets would score enough to match the efficiency Boston was displaying in their attack.
Fortunately, the Nets’ top guns delivered down the stretch. Joe Johnson, who I still worry could become the team’s A-Rod with his hefty contract and inadequate production (though minus the me-first attitude), recovered from a dreadful shooting spell to spark the rally from down 85-80 with eight minutes left to a 93-87 lead just under the two-minute mark. Center Brook Lopez also had a couple of big buckets in the run and then Williams finished the Celtics off from the free throw line.
Though it all worked out in the end, coach Johnson made some interesting choices in the fourth quarter, and I’m not talking about the curious decision to purposely foul the Celtics while nursing a four-point lead with significant time remaining on the clock (if Williams missed any of his free throws, we might have been having a different discussion today). We saw more of Reggie Evans at power forward despite Kris Humphries’ 10 points and 13 rebounds in 27 minutes. At small forward, Keith Bogans continued to be a starter in name only, with Johnson going with an offense/defense platoon of Jerry Stackhouse and Josh Childress down the stretch. MarShon Brooks saw only limited time in the second half in his return from a three-game absence due to an injury.
The logjam up front will only be exacerbated when Gerald Wallace gets back from his ankle injury sometime on the road trip, maybe even on Sunday at Sacramento. Wallace can play at either forward slot, which will mean less time for the board-banging Humphries/Evans duo as well as the conglomerate currently supplying the minutes at small forward.
So with all these options and little time to experiment, Johnson deserves some credit for avoiding a Lakers-like abyss even if you want to consider the breaks he received from the schedule-makers. The Nets are building a brand in their new Brooklyn home and needed a strong start, not just to compete with the undefeated Knicks, but to show their fans that this is a team worth investing in after so many desultory seasons in New Jersey.
One November win versus the Rondo-less Celtics is no reason to shout from the roof of the Barclays Center, but it sure beats the alternative.
Are you with Steve on this one? Sound off in the comments below…