By Steve Lichtenstein
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As the Nets returned to work following their All Star break, general manager Billy King made headlines with his “10 percent” retort when asked yesterday the odds he could arrange a trade to better position his club down the stretch and into the postseason.
The news was disappointing, for I figure that without such a maneuver, the Nets have at best a 10 percent chance of making it past one round with their current composition.
Heck, the Nets needed a couple of wins in this week’s home-and-home with Milwaukee just to get over a 10 percent winning percentage since March 2009 against the mediocre Bucks, against whom the Nets had lost 13 in a row.
Well, for one night at least, the Nets turned the odds on the casino, ending the streak with a heart-stopping 113-111 victory at an energized Barclays Center.
Of course, it helps to have a money player, and guard Joe Johnson’s picture should be pasted next to the definition of that term.
Johnson not only hit a game-tying three-pointer with 1.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter, he also nailed the buzzer-beater to win the game in overtime.
And that one came after Johnson nonchalantly sank a 35-footer after coach P.J. Carlesimo called timeout with 10 seconds remaining in overtime. It was as if to remind his coach. “Hey, why call time when I already have the ball? Who else would you want taking this shot?”
“They (the Bucks) had a foul to give,” said Carlesimo. “I’d rather diagram a play or plays. The players didn’t like it, but Joe made it look alright.”
Johnson’s end-game prowess this season has defied logic. It was his third buzzer-beater and fourth game-winner in the final 30 seconds this season. According to the advanced stat-keepers, Johnson is 8-for-9 in the final 30 seconds of games with margins of three points or less.
“I’m not always going to take the shot,” said Johnson, “but my teammates have the utmost confidence in me. It’s always a great feeling just to see everyone exploding and the excitement in the building.”
Johnson’s heroics, as well as the solid bench contributions (44 points, led by Andray Blatche’s 14 and C.J. Watson’s 11, plus two huge three-pointers in the overtime by Keith Bogans), turned the focus away from what could have been another brutal loss and the team’s inherent flaws.
The Nets squandered yet another double-digit first-half lead in a lethargic third quarter. After taking care of the ball in a five-turnover first half, the Nets coughed it up a hideous seven times in the third quarter.
Point guard Deron Williams, who returned after a two-game absence due to inflammation in his ankles, had a hand in three of them.
And, despite all the post-game platitudes from Carlesimo, I did not notice more spring in Williams’ stride. On the contrary, it looked like the Bucks’ strategic adjustment was to pick on Williams’ defense, first with the elusive Brandon Jennings (16 third-quarter points–he is so quick that I swear it looked like he was teleporting) and then with Monta Ellis early in the fourth quarter.
Brook Lopez, fresh off (or, according to Carkesimo, exhausted from) his first All Star experience, was also ill-suited for this matchup and was benched for the entire fourth quarter. Lopez finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks, but he shot 6-for-17 from the floor and was often caught on the wrong side of pick-and-rolls.
Small forward Gerald Wallace was missing layups left and right. The power forwards, Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries, continued their inconsistent ways, combining strong rebounding (16 total in 42 minutes) and hustle plays with comic ineptitude (Humphries and Blatche’s collision on a missed free throw led to a potentially momentum-killing layup by Ersan Ilyasova with six minutes left in the fourth quarter).
It’s these issues that have King exploring all options in advance of tomorrow’s trade deadline. It seems every forward who can score, including Ilyasova (who seemed to play like he was auditioning for a role in scoring 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting), has been rumored to be heading to Brooklyn. And, though they’ve taken advantage of abysmal perimeter defenses to shoot 56.5 percent in their last two games, the Nets could use another efficient three-point shooter.
The holdup, however, is that the Nets don’t have enough assets to offer to obtain anyone of substance. Humphries and reserve guard MarShon Brooks have little value and there’s only so many first round draft picks that can be dealt given King’s franchise blowup/rebuilding in the last couple of years.
That’s unfortunate, because the Nets have to try to win now, and not because owner Mikhail Prokhorov said so. This is not a young team–among the starters only Lopez, if he stays healthy (and a Net) possibly has better days in front of him. The window will close faster than you think.
And, though they’re not in bad shape at 32-22, only two games behind the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks, the Nets’ remaining schedule is heavily tilted toward road games. King will likely regret not having any wiggle room to give his club that extra talent push it will surely need to remain a viable playoff threat.
Instead, I still have the magic moments like last night that these incumbents seem to be providing on a fairly regular basis.
The odds that I will find time today to replay the final few minutes of the fourth quarter and the overtime on my DVR?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
Your thoughts on Joe Johnson’s late-game heroics? The Nets’ position at the trade deadline? Be heard in the comments…