By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Avery Johnson watch is officially on.
While I have expressed my frustrations with the Brooklyn coach’s isolation-heavy offense in my rants here, someone far more relevant is now on record suggesting that the system is holding him back.
When the criticism comes from the Nets’ signature star, point guard Deron Williams, it would seem like a good time for unemployed coaches to check those classified ads in the New York dailies.
Even if Williams’ not-so-veiled remarks in Monday’s session with the press didn’t tell the whole story.
Now Williams may have fond memories of his days in Utah running constant pick-and-rolls, but I don’t recall anyone filing his relationship with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan in the bliss folder. Sloan tendered his resignation in February of 2011, later acknowledging that he no longer had the energy to deal with his conflicts with Williams.
As for the Nets, Williams may have a point, but it would also be helpful if he could make a few more jumpers from beyond 10 feet.
Williams’ shooting woes continued in Tuesday night’s bitter 92-90 loss at Barclays Center to his old club. Williams, who has been playing through assorted injuries, failed to convert on seven of his 12 attempts, including all three while standing free in three-point land. That performance actually increased Williams’ percentage from the floor (to 38.9 percent) this season, though the three-point mark took a step back (to an even uglier 29.2 percent).
On back-to-back possessions in the final two minutes , Williams committed an offensive foul (though abetted by Utah guard Mo Williams’ flop as Williams backed him in on the low block) and misfired on another jumper.
That makes two straight defeats that the Nets have suffered in the waning moments, and the umpteenth time this season that the Nets have folded in the second half. And now the Knicks (and possibly Carmelo Anthony, his return from a sprained ankle a “game-time decision”) are waiting in the wings for tonight’s “Battle of the Boroughs III” at the Garden.
I suspect that these demoralizing losses are the source of Williams’ outburst rather than anything technical. After all, it’s not like the Nets have a big man capable of perfecting the pick-and-roll similarly to Williams’ connection with then-Jazz forward Carlos Boozer, who was equally adept at the mid-range game as he was in finishing around the rim.
Center Brook Lopez is more of an old-fashioned dump-it-in-and-clear-out player. The issues with Lopez’s feet have been well-documented, which make it difficult for him to execute the roll without looking awkward. With power forward Kris Humphries, the problem is with his hands. It’s a 50/50 proposition whether Humphries will catch the ball, and if he does, the ensuing layup is not guaranteed. They’ve run a few two-man games with guard Joe Johnson, but Johnson prefers to pop out to the three-point line.
Off the bench, forward Reggie Evans has been highly decorated as one of the league’s best screeners, but he treats the ball like a hot potato as soon as it touches his hands. And I can’t recall backup center Andray Blatche ever setting a solid pick.
What often happens is that Williams is left one-on-one following the screen. While there are few in the league who can finagle their way around defenders off the dribble like Williams, more recent opponents have strategically backed off and dared Williams to beat them with jump shots.
Following the Nets’ 11-4 start, it hasn’t happened often, with the Nets winning just two of nine.
And what could Johnson use as an excuse last night? Lopez returned from the foot sprain three games ago and did not have his minutes limited. The Nets had a couple of days off before playing the Jazz, a notoriously poor road team.
Still, the Nets came out listless to start the second half and could only muster 33 points as a 13-point lead quickly evaporated amidst a rain of turnovers and poor jump shots.
This is where Johnson is on the hook. Ever since the second game of the season, when the Nets choked away a 22-point third-quarter lead versus Minnesota, Johnson has too often failed to staunch the rising tides.
I felt that Johnson should have been quicker on the timeout trigger in the third quarter on Tuesday night when it was evident that the Nets were not playing with the same urgency as they did earlier. I thought that backup guard C.J. Watson deserved more than 14 minutes, considering he is one of the few Nets who has been hot from three-point range (67 percent in December, including 11 of his last 13).
That might have been especially helpful considering the Nets’ irrational tendency to fall in love with the bomb. The Nets are only 18th in the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage, yet take the 8th most treys per game. None of the Nets’ starters have three-point percentages in the league’s top 70. Forward Gerald Wallace, who has worked on his range but will never be confused with Steve Novak, is the leader at 36.7 percent. Wallace’s potential game-winner on an open three-pointer with under five seconds remaining last night was off the mark.
Many of the attempts were the result of overpassing, where the Nets did a good job of moving the ball around but bypassed makeable shots from inside the arc in order to yield to a more open teammate who was then forced to beat the shot clock from long distance.
It’s strange that we’re analyzing the weaknesses in the Nets’ offense now when it was defense and rebounding that were the primary concerns coming into the season. Johnson deserves credit for getting Lopez to be more active in rim protection and for reversing the team’s long-time neglect of the opposing three-point line.
But the team’s record dictates the discussion. If the Nets were playing more consistently, Williams would have likely struggled in silence.
With more than a quarter of the season in the books, Johnson’s honeymoon is over and he has run out of mulligans. As the Nets travel to Manhattan, Johnson’s team is on life support.
Though his diagnosis wasn’t complete, Williams was at least correct in recognizing the sick patient.
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