By Steve Lichtenstein
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Several times as I was watching the Nets face the Clippers last night, I had to check my remote. With all the bodies flying, the high intensity and the low scoring, did I happen to accidentally switch to one of those old Knick/Heat battles? You know, circa 1998 on MSG Vault?

Nope, these are indeed the new Nets, who finally looked like a team absorbing coach Avery Johnson’s defensive principles in their 86-76 victory at the Barclays Center.

The win was crucial, for it not only halted a two-game losing streak in the midst of a strenuous stretch of 9 games in 14 days, but it was the first time this season that the Nets have risen above the level of a title contender playing with its full complement (The triumph over Boston was nice, but it came with an asterisk due to All Star guard Rajon Rondo’s absence.).

And it was important that they did it with defense, hardly their trademark, holding the Clippers to a mere 13 points in the fourth quarter. As Johnson has often said, the Nets won’t ever be taken seriously until they improve their efficiency on the defensive end.

No one embodies this new mantra more than power forward Reggie Evans, who haunted his former club with 12 rebounds in 22 minutes. Evans is the Nets’ toughest hombre I’ve seen since the days of Kenyan Martin. He gets under the opponents’ skin—the Clippers were slapped with two technical fouls in less than a minute at the end of the third quarter, both of which had Evans in the middle of the fray. And for good measure, Evans, known as a bricklayer from the foul line, made four of his six free throws in the final stanza.

Maybe it’s true that some of Evans’ traits are rubbing off on center Brook Lopez via osmosis. While still in the lower echelon defensively, Lopez has gotten better at protecting the rim. His three blocks last night, including a special one in the third quarter helping out on skywalking Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin, kept him in fifth place among the NBA leaders in that category. Later, his help on guard Chris Paul to force an errant shot with 1:18 left in the game preserved the Nets’ eight-point lead.
Of course, with all this emphasis on defense, Lopez has not neglected his offensive game. Lopez’s 26-point effort was his sixth 20-plus point performance in his last seven games. He is shooting 58% from the floor in this period.

Ahead 75-74, with less than four minutes remaining, the Nets ran consecutive plays for Lopez, who converted both to start the decisive run. Joe Johnson followed with a three-pointer off an offensive rebound and kick-out pass from Evans to put the Nets up, 82-74, with 1:42 left.

The Nets’ fourth-quarter metamorphosis shocked me, as they were pretty much beaten up on the glass until that point. The Nets couldn’t even generate a single fast break point. Clipper center DeAndre Jordan was putting on a dunkathon while Griffin was barreling through anyone in a black jersey.

In their prior two games, road losses to the Lakers and the Warriors, the Nets could not come up with the necessary stops when it counted most. The Warriors in particular wore out the Nets (no pun intended) with their second-half shooting. The Nets were lax in running out to contest guards Stephen
Curry and Klay Thompson while ceding too much space inside to forward David Lee.

But Johnson went to a defensive-oriented lineup to start the fourth quarter last night to reverse the dynamic. In addition to giving Evans extended time, Johnson entrusted swingman Keith Bogans to put a horse collar around guard Jamal Crawford, who is still an explosive scorer in his 13th year in the league.

Then there’s forward Gerald Wallace, who had been slow to recover from an opening-night ankle injury. Wallace may not be the offensive focus he once was, but he does all the little things teams need to pull games like these out. He worked for 38 minutes last night, hounding Caron Butler into a 3-for-9
shooting night while contributing 8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.

Suddenly it was like I was watching the 90s Knicks. This unit kept Los Angeles off the scoreboard for the first three and a half minutes before Crawford made a ridiculous underhand scoop shot from inside the foul line. The second-chance points disappeared. The defense forced eight Clipper turnovers in the final 12 minutes.

And it’s not like this all happened versus a team like the Orlando Magic—the Clippers still lead the Pacific Division and are one of the favorites in the wild Western Conference.

So while I applaud the win, I was more impressed with the underlying root cause. All the top teams, even the current Knicks, rely on the consistency of their defenses to spearhead their drive toward their ultimate goal.

I was worried that the Nets weren’t structured to win slugfests like these. For one game at least, the Nets were up for the fight.

Are you impressed with the Nets win over the Clippers? Let us know below.

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