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Lichtenstein: P.J.’s Nets Are Improved, But Still No Match For Heat

(credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s established that LeBron James is the greatest current basketball player on the planet.  But that doesn’t make the Heat star an expert on the state of the Nets.

James caused quite a stir yesterday when he opined prior to his sole visit to the Barclays Center that “it sucks” the Nets didn’t play hard for Avery Johnson, which cost the former head coach his job.

James insinuated that not much has changed in Brooklyn under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, just that the players are giving a better effort.  James had no other explanation for the Nets’ 13-4 mark since Carlesimo took over, which followed a 3-10 slide that had the Nets sitting at .500.

Now, at first glance, Wednesday night’s 105-85 demolition job, in front of a sellout crowd that went home crushed (mostly — there were still plenty of annoying bandwagon Heat fans, though not as many as when the Nets were in New Jersey) because the Nets could not extend their eight-game home winning streak, would seem to prove James’ claim.

After all, last night’s game had many of the same characteristics of the two prior Brooklyn defeats in Miami under Johnson’s reign.

The Nets again disintegrated in the second half amid a torrent of ugly turnovers (19 for the game), forced long-range shots (29 percent on three-pointers), and poor box-outs. (Miami entered the game ranked 22nd in the NBA in rebound differential but out-boarded the Nets 38-34, including 13-10 on the offensive glass.)

James continued his domination of the Nets, filling up the stat sheet (24 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals) en route to his 17th straight win over the franchise.

To be fair, James’ comments were in response to some idiotic pregame musings from Nets forward Reggie Evans, who called Miami’s 2012 title “tainted” because of the lockout and said that guarding James was “no different from (teammates) Joe Johnson or Andray Blatche.”

Not the wisest move by the Nets’ veteran.  Why fuel the Heat’s rocket?  Miami was already ticked from blowing an overtime game in Boston on Sunday and now Evans lays out some more motivation?

I caught James as he entered the arena and he was screaming rap lyrics laced with profanity to get extra juiced for the game.  My reaction — “Uh-oh.”

James’ play, however, is not the last word on the subject.  The Nets may be done trying to beat the Heat, but they are in much better shape to take on the rest of the Eastern Conference under Carlesimo than they would have been if they continued in the direction Johnson was driving the team.

Here’s the difference — P.J. gets it.

Unlike Johnson, Carlesimo hasn’t tried to remake his club so they can “match” the Heat.  No small ball of spreading the floor with sub-40 percent three-point bombers taking turns jacking them up with the likes of Shane Battier and Ray Allen.

In fact, Carlesimo went in the opposite direction in the second quarter. He paired his two centers, Brook Lopez and Blatche, something Johnson was loathe to do even when facing the Lakers’ tandem of seven-footers Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

Blatche’s 10 points in the quarter (on 5-for-5 shooting) helped the Nets come back from an early 12-point hole to tie the game at halftime, 49-49.

Carlesimo gives opportunities to those most deserving. Minutes have to be earned. Carlesimo will adjust to ride those performing on any particular night.

Last night, Keith Bogans had a good stroke while MarShon Brooks looked a step slow, so Carlesimo had Bogans replace shooting guard Joe Johnson in the third quarter instead of Brooks.  Kris Humphries was again a nonfactor in his two first-half minutes, which forced the $12 million man to sit on the bench for the remainder of the night.

The offense is playing faster, as evidenced by the team’s improvement in related statistical metrics.  There’s not as much reliance on isolation plays.  I’ve noticed more schemes to get Lopez the ball in the paint off cuts instead of always going to the standard dump-in to the post.

Of course, it all went for naught.  The Heat went on a 30-8 run to close the third quarter and squash any hope that the Nets could rise to the occasion.  Player execution always trumps coaching strategy in the NBA.

“We dug a big hole doing the same things in the third quarter (as in the first quarter),” said Carlesimo. “We turned the ball over, we did a poor job rebounding and we didn’t make our threes.  We just shot ourselves in the foot offensively.  We had some looks and we couldn’t finish inside and then the bubble burst.”

In the end, the Nets as currently constructed match up poorly with the defending champions.  Miami is too athletic and owns a plethora of sharpshooters to keep defenses honest.  Carlesimo had the right game plan, but it would have taken one of those rare off nights by the King and his Court for the Nets to have come out ahead.

The Nets, and owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who flew overseas to catch up on his club, will have to settle for the next level.  The Nets are tied for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.  They have already proven that they can compete with anyone other than Miami.

Chicago, the third seed, looms next tomorrow at the Barclays Center.  The Bulls, who have played all season without star point guard Derrick Rose, eked out a one-point win during the Nets’ December slide.

Now this should be a game where you can see the difference in the Nets since the coaching change.

Your thoughts on Nets-Heat? Be heard in the comments!

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1