By Steve Lichtenstein
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All streaks are supposed to end at some point, so I’m not supposed to get too worked up over the Nets’ disappointing 92-83 loss to the depleted Lakers at the Barclays Center last night, their first after 17 straight wins over sub-.500 clubs.
I even delayed this post so I could attempt a more rational analysis of this latest debacle, the Nets’ fourth loss in their last six games.
It didn’t work.
Last night was just another example of the inconsistency that has plagued the Nets during this maddening inaugural season in Brooklyn. The Nets may be 28-20, but they have a slew of road games coming up and seem ill-prepared to handle any adversity.
Who, please tell me, is playing well right now? With all the supposed talent on this roster, who can interim coach P.J. Carlesimo count on these days?
Sure, the stats will show that center Brook Lopez, a week removed from his first invitation to the NBA All-Star game, finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. But Lopez misfired on 14 of 25 shots, including a couple of short-range attempts in the final two minutes when the Nets were put away by a 10-0 Lakers run. He also failed to protect the rim on Kobe Bryant’s forays to the hoop late in the fourth quarter (though after a terrific swat of a Bryant layup with over five minutes remaining) and blew a couple of pick-and-roll assignments.
And this with the Lakers playing without All-Star center Dwight Howard, who sat out a third consecutive game with a sore shoulder, and later Pau Gasol, who limped to the locker room with just under four minutes left due to a foot injury.
Lopez at least finished the game, as opposed to the fourth quarter benching he incurred during Friday’s win over the Bulls. Maybe that was because Carlesimo was not comfortable last night relying on ailing backup center Andray Blatche, who didn’t look right in five first-half minutes.
Still, with the likes of Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark left to defend the paint, I can’t fathom how the Nets couldn’t score after Lopez’s three-point play with 2:33 remaining.
Where was their nine-figure backcourt? Deron Williams and Joe Johnson combined to go 9-for-28 from the floor. Both stars rebounded from ugly starts to the season to put together solid Januarys but now seem to be going through a relapse.
We excused Williams’ poor shooting all season as it was related to a series of nagging injuries and he was still one of the best floor leaders in the League. Lately, he has caught the turnover bug from some of his less-skilled teammates. Williams coughed it up five more times last night, bringing his total to 14 over his last three games while shooting 38 percent.
Johnson has been even more of an enigma, sometimes delivering in clutch moments but as often disappearing from the offensive picture. Johnson was held scoreless over the game’s final 18 minutes against a team not exactly known for its perimeter defense.
Then there’s the Nets’ fourth wheel, forward Gerald Wallace, whose skills have atrophied so much in this scheme that he can barely make half his layups. Never much of a three-point threat (his 33 percent mark for this season is above his career average, but well below what is acceptable for this role), Wallace is most often stationed so far from the basket that it makes it difficult for him to slash for scores, especially when defenders like Bryant play five feet off him. In the final minute, Wallace, who is averaging 8.9 points per game (his lowest output since 2003-04), missed a wide-open three-pointer, blew a layup, and then threw a ball away.
To be fair, Wallace always defends the most skilled opponent and for the most part he has brought his notorious intensity to each matchup. Bryant needed 24 shots to get his 21 points, but Wallace accepted the blame after the game for not being able to stay in front of him down the stretch.
At the power forward slot, Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries can rebound, but that’s it. Humphries, the 39th highest-paid player in the NBA at $12 million per year, has fallen the furthest. He used to make a decent percentage of those 12-footers that he often gets from opponents far more concerned with the Nets’ top guns. Not so much this season, which is the main reason why he has had to earn his minutes coming off the bench.
Carlesimo has no idea what he will get from the rest of his reserves on a game-by-game basis either. Blatche has had only a handful of solid outings in the last month. Guards C.J. Watson and MarShon Brooks have the skills to provide the second unit the necessary offense, but it’s been too sporadic. Outside of a few games, Keith Bogans is an offensive dead end.
For those who think I’m being too harsh, I would remind you of the Nets’ fragile makeup. You know, the one that turned around an 11-4 honeymoon with a ghastly 3-10 stretch in December.
Back then, it was easy for me to pin their demise on fired coach Avery Johnson. He changed the team’s direction into his more small-ball oriented vision and paid the price.
This one, though, is on the players. The Nets are playing the same style as when they won in Oklahoma City and New York, two of the toughest venues in the NBA to garner a victory, but they are executing much worse. They’re turning the ball over at an alarming rate, shooting blanks from the perimeter, and defending inconsistently.
Unfortunately, this could be who they are, a team that will certainly make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference and possibly win a round. I expect that they’ll start a new streak against the league’s dregs tonight in Detroit. But contending for a championship?
With this crew, that will be limited to owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s fantasies.
The trade deadline is two weeks away, but I can’t see what Nets general manager Billy King could do there to make another leap, especially with Howard apparently off the block. No one wanted the Nets’ assets over the summer and, with the way they’re playing lately, they certainly won’t bring back much in return now.
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