By Steve Lichtenstein
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Call off the search party. Send the hounds back to the kennel. The real Brooklyn Nets were found last night in Oklahoma City.
The Nets that stunned the NBA-leading Thunder, 110-93, surely could not have been the same group that posted a 5-11 record in December, with the alleged imposters closing out 2012 with a disgraceful effort in San Antonio on Monday.
These Nets were barely recognizable from their recent vintage. They played big and fast last night in roaring out of the gate to take a double-digit lead, which was extended to 23 points with 3:16 remaining in the second quarter.
They had everything going, working their offense from inside-out. Guard Joe Johnson (20 of his game-high 33 points in the first half) dribbled with purpose instead of just pounding the ball on back-ins. The center tandem of Brook Lopez and Andray Blatche combined for 16 points in the half to frustrate the Thunder’s notorious shot blockers.
Of course, the Nets gave it all back in the second half—a conundrum that was also common during their “heyday” in November—but they withstood the Thunder rally by closing the game with a 25-8 run over the final seven minutes.
This was the Nets’ finest win of the season, their first on the road over a team that is now better than .500. And it came out of nowhere.
Credit interim coach P.J. Carlesimo for solving the missing persons mystery. Carlesimo traced the team’s steps back to their November success, when they jumped out to an 11-4 start that included impressive victories over the Knicks and Clippers. The Nets were a physical bunch, pounding both backboards and locking down on the defensive end.
Then the Nets somehow wandered off the path. Lopez got hurt, Johnson was no-showing just about every third game, and point guard Deron Williams lost his way.
As the schedule got tougher, the Nets softened. Instead of fighting through adversity, especially when the third quarter blues became more than a fluke, the Nets were folding down the stretch of games. They played with a smaller lineup, giving up their edge on the glass and weakening their paint protection. Their attack consisted of chucking three-pointers to beat the shot clock–when they weren’t turning the ball over.
After back-to-back embarrassments versus Boston and Milwaukee last week, general manager Billy King pulled the plug on coach Avery Johnson in favor of Carlesimo.
Carlesimo did not take a break on the day off after the San Antonio loss, instead running a practice that evidently jarred his team’s memory bank in time to face the high-scoring Thunder.
The Nets got back to basics. With the exception of a minute-and-a-half stretch in the fourth quarter, the Nets always had a legitimate power forward on the floor, with Kris Humphries coming back from injury and oblivion to contribute 11 points and 7 rebounds. The defense held the Thunder to under 100 points for only the eighth time in 31 games this season.
When the game tightened, the Nets looked to score inside instead of settling for three-point bombs. They were particularly adept at drawing fouls and took advantage by making 19 straight free throws over the final 9:42 (much to the dismay of the Thunder, who whined over every whistle until star forward Kevin Durant was ejected with two minutes left. Ironically, the Nets couldn’t get a call from anyone but Violet Palmer for three quarters). Lopez made a couple of playground (albeit very awkward) shots to help extend the lead to 102-90 with about 2:30 remaining.
Through it all was Williams, who has taken enormous heat while playing through pain all season. As the team’s centerpiece, with his nearly $100 million five-year contract signed over the summer, Williams was the primary suspect in the Johnson slaying. As soon as the losing became epidemic, there was too much back-and-forth between star player and coach, especially considering the player wasn’t meeting expectations. Williams is in the midst of a shooting slump that has caused his production to plummet from his norm.
On this team, however, Williams’ value is far more than his scoring totals. Last night’s stat line will show that Williams shot a pedestrian 5-for-12 and yielded 26 points to the Thunder’s Plastic Man Russell Westbrook. But check out the other figures: Williams passed for 13 assists with only two turnovers. He also had five steals, pilfering three directly from Westbrook, who coughed up the ball a total of six times.
That’s the kind of play that brought winning basketball to Brooklyn at the season’s onset and had been missing for over a month. It’s what King envisioned when he convinced owner Mikhail Prohkorov to part with $330 million for contracts to revamp a once-moribund franchise.
Still, this case cannot be considered closed until we see this effort from the Nets on a consistent basis. There’s a chance that last night was the aberration. The Nets’ schedule for the first half of January is not all that challenging, with a visit to last-place Washington up next on Friday, so we could again have the proverbial hoods pulled over our eyes from a string of victories over inferior teams.
At least the Nets now have their blueprint back for how they can compete with the NBA’s elite. I hope they keep it in a safe place.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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