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Lichtenstein: Nets Pay Big Price Defensively When Going Small

(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

Wasn’t Brook Lopez supposed to be the Nets’ weak link defensively?

It turns out that Brooklyn can be just as generous with the seven-footer center on the sidelines, as Golden State became the third straight team to break the 100-point barrier against the Nets, scoring at will in a 109-102 victory at the Barclays Center last night.

Not coincidentally, it was the Nets’ third straight defeat, all with Lopez sitting out due to what the P.R. department is calling a “mild” right foot sprain.  That’s the same foot that finally looked like it had recovered from the fracture that eradicated Lopez’ 2011-12 season for all but five games.

Lopez might be the Nets’ leading scorer at 18.5 ppg, but these losses have had little to do with his absence.  I mean, if the Knicks can withstand the injury to star Carmelo Anthony to trounce the Heat in Miami, then the Nets can’t be looking for excuses any more if they want to be mentioned with teams that play at that level.

Anyway, reserve center Andray Blatche’s numbers have been on par with Lopez’s output, with similar scoring, better rebounding — but without the rim protection.

The team defense has gone down the tubes without him.

Brooklyn’s biggest problem is when they try to match up against teams that go small.  In the first half, the Warriors were the team that looked dysfunctional using a more “traditional” lineup, with center Festus Ezeli in a Seinfeld-ian “Festivus” mood in gifting the Nets extra possessions with his fumbles on the court en route to a 63-55 Nets halftime lead.

Once the Golden State coaching staff took a look at the plus/minus statistics from the first half, they stapled Ezeli to the bench and, just like in the game at Oakland last month, the Warriors took over in the third quarter.

The Nets gave Warriors star Stephen Curry way too many good looks at the hoop, though, in fairness, a good look for Curry is anytime he can see where the basket is.  Curry was especially adept at running his man off a screen to create space on the switch to launch his sweet jump shot.

So Nets coach Avery Johnson, as he has so often done in the last two weeks, felt his club had to play quicker, removing a power forward to play smaller.  Unfortunately, this strategy has not helped his club defend teams that spread the floor with shooters any better.

Last night, Johnson panicked when a couple of turnovers allowed Golden State to creep back in the game in the third quarter.  Out came power forward Kris Humphries for swingman Jerry Stackhouse.  Why?  Humphries or Reggie Evans can’t guard Draymond Green or Carl Landry?

Unfortunately, this adjustment played into the hands of Warriors power forward David Lee, who strafed the Nets for 30 points and 15 rebounds, seven on the offensive end.  With no inside defensive help available, Lee found himself free to work one-on-one while I found myself yelling at the screen in a futile attempt to remind the Net defenders that Lee is a lefty.  Lee’s three consecutive buckets in the middle of an 11-1 Warriors’ run in the middle of the fourth quarter turned a three-point Nets’ lead into a 97-90 deficit that proved insurmountable.

Talk about déjà vu.  The Warriors shot 51 percent from the floor, including 47 percent from three-point range, last night.  In Golden State, the figures were 53 percent and 47 percent.

Not many teams can keep up with that, even with Joe Johnson’s finest performance in a Brooklyn uniform.  Johnson put up a season-high 32 points on 12-for-23 shooting.

Johnson did the most damage (20 points) in the first half, using his size advantage to muscle his way inside for easy scores to open up his long-range shooting.  But Golden State was able to put bigger bodies on Johnson when the Nets went to three guards, reducing his effectiveness.

And the Nets also found the paint to be a much more precarious place to conduct offensive business with only one big man on the floor.  The Warriors turned the Nets into a three-point shooting team, thanking them as they took off down the court in transition.  The Warriors outscored the Nets, 24-2, on the fast break and 50-38 in the paint.

Among the struggling Nets was Deron Williams, who appeared to awaken from a season-long shooting slumber in Tuesday’s loss to Oklahoma City, but obviously could not carry it over.  Despite Curry sloughing off to protect against Williams’ prolific drives, the Nets’ $100 million man failed to convert on 14 of his 22 attempts.

The small-lineup addiction started in the first Knicks game, when the Nets escaped in overtime thanks to Knicks guard Raymond Felton’s foibles.  I’m afraid the Knicks could score 130 points on them in their rematch on Tuesday even if Lopez, who has often been ridiculed for his subpar defensive activity, returns.  It’s not incomprehensible, not for a team as hot as the Knicks that is facing a team consistently allowing the opposition to shoot over 50 percent from the floor.  I don’t think the Nets can count on Felton shooting blanks like he did in his 3-for-19 outing a couple of weeks ago.

The Nets then built up a large enough cushion to withstand the Humphries and Gerald Wallace ejections in Boston and played just enough solid basketball to extend past the horrid Magic.

But in these past three defeats, the Nets have come up short when going small.  They’ve lost their physical edge, which was often provided by the Humphries-Evans power forward tandem, and, more importantly, lost the defensive mojo that was the talk of the league only a short while ago.  All this so Johnson could play guys like Keith Bogans, whose minus number last night once again exceeded his minutes played.

If the Nets are counting on Lopez to rectify this issue, then I was way too premature in proclaiming them ready to take on the best of the NBA.

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Where’s the defense?! Give us your take on the Nets in the comments…