By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s hard to call a late-January NBA game against an overwhelmed opponent a “must-win.”
But this has not been an ordinary season for the Nets.
There was the euphoria of the 11-4 start to commence their initial campaign in Brooklyn, with pundits and pontificators eager to jump on the bandwagon.
That was followed by a December swoon that not only sent the Nets back to .500, but cost coach Avery Johnson his job.
Under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, the Nets’ ship appeared to be righted, as they won 12-of-14 games after the switch.
But then the Nets looked outmatched over the weekend in losses at Memphis and Houston. With tough games upcoming versus Miami and Chicago later this week, the Nets were staring at another cliff if they gagged against Orlando on Monday night.
When the Magic cut 10 points off the Nets’ 56-40 halftime margin in the first 9-plus minutes of the third quarter, you could hear the squirming of the Nets fans in their seats at Barclays Center.
However, that’s as close as Orlando would get, as the Nets’ bench took over early in the fourth quarter to turn the game into a 97-77 rout.
For the Nets, they can at least be spared the comparisons from their previous spiral. Instead, they can focus on taking down Miami on Wednesday, a tall task.
For the Nets will have to play a lot better to beat the Heat.
The Nets turned it over 20 times last night. A repeat would be suicidal against the defending champions, who devour opponents with their fast break. In the two previous meetings in Miami, the Nets committed 19 and 18 turnovers, respectively. You can guess how they made out.
Also, the Nets took 29 shots behind the three-point line against Orlando, continuing a trend of hoisting an alarmingly high number of such attempts. Contrary to Avery’s opinion, the Nets are not a strong three-point shooting team. The 44.8 percent success rate allowed by the defenseless Magic merely moved the Nets up to a tie for 20th in the league in that category.
The quicker defenses, like Miami’s, do a better job of contesting, which is why the Nets shot only 18 percent in the first two games.
The Nets are at their offensive best when they work inside-out. Whether it’s establishing center Brook Lopez, posting Joe Johnson on a smaller guard or drives by point guard Deron Williams, the Nets have enough weapons to make defenses pack in the paint before they settle for long-range attempts.
The Nets especially need a monster game from Lopez on Wednesday to take advantage of Miami’s height deficiency. Lopez played only 21 minutes in the first meeting and sat out the latter with a foot injury.
Carlesimo has looked to limit Lopez’s minutes where possible (he played just 28 last night), but I expect to see a lot of Lopez on the floor on Wednesday. Backup Andray Blatche, Johnson’s reclamation project, has been more inconsistent since the coaching change and doesn’t protect the rim as well as Lopez.
I’m also interested to see how the Nets defend Miami star LeBron James. I’m sure that forward Gerald Wallace will initially draw the assignment, but maybe Carlesimo will put together a package of defenders like he did for the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony last week. Of course, James presents difficulties beyond even Anthony’s capabilities, so I’m not expecting the same success from someone like plodding power forward Kris Humphries, who held Anthony scoreless in crucial fourth-quarter minutes.
No, the Heat represent a different challenge, one that the Nets might not be ready for. Miami will be bloodthirsty coming off its overtime loss in Boston on Sunday, and it will look to exact retribution on national TV.
That’s why it was so important for Brooklyn to nip the losing streak on Monday night. The way this season’s been going, a defeat would have put the Nets under a microscope for the rest of the week, and, before you know it, we’re bringing back owner Mikhail Prokhorov to reprise his role as “The Terminator.”
That won’t be necessary. The Nets have established themselves as a good team, one of many that could win a round or two in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They have padded their record with wins over sub-.500 teams (the Magic victory was their 17th straight without a loss), but they also own trophy wins over serious contenders such as the Clippers and Thunder. I like the direction that Carlesimo has taken the club since he took over, re-establishing the Nets’ physical advantages and giving Williams free reign over the offense.
The old saying is that all coaches are interim coaches. Because he happens to have that tag affixed on him, Carlesimo won’t breathe easy until the end of the season. But, thanks to Monday night’s victory, he can at least exhale.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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