By Steve Lichtenstein
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After three straight resounding triumphs at home — including a thriller in overtime versus their crosstown rivals from Manhattan on Monday — the Nets still had to answer those who questioned whether they could go punch-for-punch with the top teams on the road.
Their response from last night in Boston was, as Marv Albert would say, “YES!” Both figuratively and literally.
With 30 seconds left in a first half dominated by the Nets, Nets forward Kris Humphries’ unintentional smack to the noggin on Celtics star Kevin Garnett’s shot attempt set off teammate Rajon Rondo, who immediately went after Humphries to escalate the friction.
Nets forward Gerald Wallace then tried to restrain a raging Garnett. Unfortunately, Wallace had already been whistled for a technical foul 30 seconds earlier, so he was tossed along with Rondo (who better be suspended by NBA law enforcement) and Humphries.
I heard the Celtics fans crying about the loss of Rondo, but I believed that the Nets got the worst of the trade-off at the time. Wallace may have shot only 2-for-10 in his 18 minutes, but I was worried that the Nets would have a harder time replacing Wallace’s all-court game than the Celtics would for Rondo, who acted like he was playing with his friends at the local park instead of respecting the game.
Rondo seemed to be more interested in extending his 37-game streak of 10-plus assists, passing up open layups and forcing others. (I’m not going back to the DVR to verify the count, but it sure seemed like he had more than two turnovers.) Who knows? Maybe the enigmatic Rondo got frustrated when he saw a measly three assists on the scoreboard, and he was looking for an out.
His bonus was that he took Wallace with him to the showers.
The Nets re-signed Wallace as part of their summer makeover, for the purpose of hounding the high-scoring small forwards in the Eastern Conference. Wallace exhausted Knicks star Carmelo Anthony on Monday. The Celtics’ Paul Pierce, who has devastated the Nets so often in the past and still has the ability to take over games, was held to 2-for-7 shooting with three turnovers in the first half, with Wallace accumulating three steals.
So I wasn’t all too comfortable with that 13-point halftime lead. Celtics lore is filled with stories of wake-up calls following such self-started travesties. The Nets had not exactly established an identity as road warriors either, with only victories over NBA bottom-feeders Orlando and Sacramento on their resume. They wilted late in games in Los Angeles and Golden State, and were blown out in Miami. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the Nets played the second half in a rope-a-dope.
Well, you can argue whether it’s the move to Brooklyn or just the influx of veteran players like Jerry Stackhouse or Reggie Evans who won’t back down from a fight, but these Nets are evolving into a tougher breed.
The Celtics never got closer than nine points.
Stackhouse once again was deadly from the corners, making five of his six three-pointers, each one taking the air out of potential Celtics runs.
The 38-year-old Stackhouse was brought on to contribute more with his wisdom on the sidelines than with his jump shot on the court, but the Nets have a dire need for someone to knock down those wide open looks. Spot-up shooting is not Wallace’s strength, and Keith Bogans, in my view, has flunked his audition as the primary reserve with his inconsistent marksmanship and defense. Nets coach Avery Johnson has been reluctant to play either second-year prodigy MarShon Brooks or Josh Childress much, leaving the door to key minutes open for Stackhouse, who has thrived in that role.
And I continue to be impressed with the “Evans Effect.” He is relentless with his hustle on both ends, imposing his will on games without scoring (though he did nail a shot-clock beating jumper in the second quarter — the first shot I’ve seen him take this year from outside the paint). Evans, the NBA’s leading rebounder per minute, finished with 10 boards while chasing Garnett around the court most of the game. I’m guessing he grew a bit weary during his 34-minute stint. It’s just that I have no other explanation for the few loose balls that didn’t end up in his hands.
Every haymaker that the Celtics threw at the Nets had a response. When Brook Lopez got into foul trouble and then seemed to injure his right foot (he returned for 11 seconds in the fourth quarter before picking up his fifth foul), backup Andray Blatche returned to prominence with a 17-point, 13-rebound performance.
It didn’t even matter that starting guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson continued their season-long shooting struggles. The duo combined to misfire on 17-of-26 attempts, but Johnson made a couple of clutch plays and Williams dished out seven assists to only one turnover.
Down the stretch, the Nets executed almost flawlessly. With the double-digit lead, they spread the floor, worked the shot clock down and swung the ball around to the open man. The best Boston could do was trade buckets.
The Celtics, who also lost to the Nets two weeks ago in a game that, ironically, didn’t include either the injury-saddled Rondo or Wallace, could be playing possum this early in the season. They want to limit Garnett’s minutes now in the hope that he will have a full tank come playoff time in April. Coach Doc Rivers has a veteran group that will not be sent quietly to any nursing home.
Still, I can tell that Rivers was not happy that, until the dust-up, it seemed like his Celtics did not have the same urgency as the upstart Nets, who at 10-4 tied their best season-opening run in their history.
The more impressive news is that, even after the brawl, there was little that the Celtics could do about it anyway, thanks to all the weapons remaining in the Nets’ arsenal. It wasn’t a fair fight.
Was last night’s win a true “statement game,” or are you still not completely sold on this team? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…