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By Steve Lichtenstein
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Sunday night’s local slate had me thankful that my thumb is one of my few body parts in excellent shape. The remote was in for a workout as I switched between two big games (well, as big as one would find in February) featuring my Nets and Devils.
For these two teams, who have been historically linked through their statuses as second-class denizens in the metropolitan area competing against higher-profile rivals in Manhattan — even sharing their building before the Nets bolted east from New Jersey last summer across two rivers into Brooklyn — Sunday night’s contests were sure to provide measuring sticks against their respective league’s elite.
It’s too bad that the two franchises share little else in common.
In fact, the Devils, a rock of consistency for nearly 25 years, are more comparable to Sunday night’s Nets’ opponent — the NBA-leading Spurs — albeit with slightly fewer accomplishments on their resume.
Under the reign of Lou Lamoriello, the Devils’ master chef since 1988, the Devils have not only been near locks to qualify for the playoffs, but they reached the finals five times, winning three championships (compared to four and four for San Antonio).
More importantly, Lamoriello’s Devils and coach Greg Popovich’s Spurs have relied on similar team-first models, purposely shunning the attention most teams covet following such achievements. Sure, they each possess stars, but whether it’s Tim Duncan or Ilya Kovalchuk, they are required to buy into the system.
Their systems have survived player turnover and, in Lamoriello’s case, serial changes behind the bench. It’s hard to believe but, for many years, the Spurs challenged the Devils in being referred to (and confirmed by television ratings) as their sports’ most boring club, as if methodical winning could be so predictable.
The Nets, on the other hand, are their league’s symbol of dysfunction. They came to Brooklyn with as tortured a history as any since their entry into the NBA about 35 years ago, and are coming close to wearing out their welcome following a short honeymoon.
The Nets felt their fans’ wrath on Sunday night in getting pulverized by San Antonio, 111-86, at Barclays Center. Even with stars Duncan and Manu Ginobli in street clothes to rest their weary limbs, the Spurs didn’t miss a beat in their executions on both ends.
Tony Parker gave counterpart Deron Williams a clinic on how to man the point guard position, thoroughly dominating the game in all facets. Parker finished with 29 points, 11 assists and (Williams, please take note) no turnovers.
The Nets looked like a team more interested in what’s going on off the court, as in who is getting shipped off by general manager Billy King prior to the February 21 trade deadline. Will it be Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks, two players who former coach Avery Johnson and now interim coach P.J. Carlesimo have made expendable — if not worthless — through inconsistent minutes? Or was Lakers GM Mitch Kupchack just blowing smoke in deeming center Dwight Howard a Laker for the remainder of the season? Seriously, are the Hawks giving Josh Smith away for 20 cents on the dollar?
One thing is clear: The current mix in Brooklyn has severe limitations. Specifically, the dearth of three-point shooters has killed the Nets in most games in which they need to step up in class.
One stretch that epitomized this predicament occurred about four minutes into the fourth quarter last night, when the Nets were still within striking distance, down by 10. The Spurs put forth one of their patented ball-movement exhibitions to give forward Matt Bonner an uncontested three-pointer in the left corner. There was no doubt in my mind that the shot was going to be made.
The Nets then did the same thing, except their weapon of choice was Keith Bogans, who is not nearly as reliable from long range. Bogans’ bricked the wide-open attempt. Nets backup center Andray Blatche grabbed the ensuing offensive rebound, but immediately lost the ball and committed a silly foul.
Boris Diaw then knocked in another three-pointer for San Antonio and, just like that, the ballgame was over.
Meanwhile, the Devils were finishing off a fantastic five-win week by sweeping a home-and-home over the mighty Penguins by identical 3-1 scores.
On Sunday night in Pittsburgh, it was the Devils who gave their ageless wonder, goalie Martin Brodeur, a rest. Still, like the Spurs, the Devils’ expectations do not change no matter who is in the lineup. Johan Hedberg, a mere 39 years old, frustrated Pittsburgh virtuosos Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with 23 saves through solid positioning.
And, as the Spurs have added some pizzazz in recent years, these Devils are more than the typical neutral-zone trap versions of prior vintages.
The Devils are as adept at creating chances in the offensive zone through hard play along the walls and shots from the points as they are at scoring off the rush.
Winger David Clarkson scored a goal each way on Sunday night to continue his hot start (his nine goals are tied for second in the NHL), and Kovalchuk also buried a two-on-one. The Devils have reached three goals in nine of their first 12 games, with one of their defensemen contributing at least a point in every contest.
The Devils have pretty much shrugged off the offseason departure of star winger Zach Parise to Minnesota by simply plugging in the next guy on the depth chart, which is also the San Antonio way.
Whether it’s San Antonio guard Danny Green, who connected on 4-of-8 three-pointers last night, or Devils fourth-line winger Bobby Butler, whose goal and assist on consecutive power plays decided Saturday’s game, everyone must contribute, even if they were picked up off the scrap heap.
Of course, the Devils and Spurs also excel at defending.
Even the stars.
As brilliant as Kovalchuk’s snapper were his clears out of the Devils’ zone in the final minutes that stopped short of icings.
That accountability is lacking in Brooklyn. When the Nets get down, forward Gerald Wallace has charged, their instinct is to try to do too much on their own.
I don’t see how this group will ever get it together. The whole “New Team” excuse is stale. It’s King’s job to infuse the club with better talent (i.e. players who can make shots) to mesh with his core of Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez.
And it’s Carlesimo’s job (for now) to enforce discipline on the court.
Until then, the Nets will continue to be looking up at teams like the Spurs from echelons below.
For now, I will look to be comforted by the Devils, a warm blanket of consistency in New York’s volatile sports landscape.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
The Devils, the Spurs … Which other franchises would you put on this list as models for continued success? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments section below…