By Steve Lichtenstein
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Two-minute drills are usually thought of as part of the NFL paradigm, but their failures can be just as catastrophic for NBA teams.

Just ask the Nets.

In their previous two games, both at home, the Nets disintegrated late to squander opportunities to beat Houston and Memphis.  On Friday, the Rockets went on a 9-2 run in the final two minutes to pull away for a 10-point victory.  Sunday was even worse, with the Nets going scoreless over the final 2:30, which turned a five-point lead over the Grizzlies into a demoralizing four-point loss.

Fortunately, the awful Hornets proved to be just the right opponent to resurrect the Nets’ two-minute offense.  The Nets halted their slide with a 101-97 win on Tuesday night in New Orleans.

The Nets were again without the services of late-game hero Joe Johnson, who missed a third straight game due to a sore left heel.  The Nets shooting guard had been their “go-to guy” in tight games and he has delivered, converting on 9-of-10 shots in the final minute when game margins were within three points, including four game-winners in the final 30 seconds.  He leads the Nets with 64 points in the final five minutes of games within a five-point spread.

So you would think it would be fair to attribute the Nets’ recent failures in crunch time to Johnson’s absence, right?

Except this excuse rings hollow, for Johnson was really supposed to be just a piece of an ensemble.  The Nets should not have been treating the injury like they couldn’t go on without a soloist to close the act.

Maybe they were trying to save face for their other so-called front men, center Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams, both of whom had been no-shows, one literally and one figuratively, down the stretch.

Lopez, fresh off his first All-Star appearance, was reduced to one meaningless cameo in three of the first four fourth quarters after the break.  Understudy Andray Blatche gobbled up those minutes, and, considering the comparative effectiveness of the two big men, no one could fault interim coach P.J. Carlesimo for making those decisions.

Williams, on the other hand, has had to endure various medications just to stay on the court through all his aches and pains.  However, it hadn’t exactly transformed him into a fourth-quarter assassin this season, with Williams shooting a mere 22 percent in “clutch” situations, according to  Williams’ missed layup (though he was mugged on the play) and turnover on back-to-back possessions in the final 30 seconds doomed the Nets against the Grizzlies.

Tuesday night, however, was a different story.

Williams was magnificent with 33 points and eight assists. Lopez, who may have been inspired by sibling rivalry in facing twin brother Robin, scored 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting while also adding seven rebounds, five assists, four blocks and a host of intimidating shot alterations.

More importantly, the Nets made a point to put the ball in their two stars’ hands in the final minutes. And this time, they were not disappointed.

The Nets were clinging to a four-point lead with two minutes remaining when they ran consecutive plays for Lopez, who scored on a runner in the lane and then converted a pair of free throws.

Then it was Williams’ turn to take over.

Williams, who had 20 first-half points before having his hand stepped on early in the third quarter, shook off five consecutive missed field goals to nail a three-pointer and a step-back jump shot, giving the Nets a 95-86 lead with a minute to go.

From there, Williams knocked down six straight free throws to ice the win.

Of course, it was inexcusable for the Nets to let the lottery-bound Hornets even get that close.

Unfortunately, that’s the way it’s been in this inaugural season in Brooklyn.  We never know what these guys will give from quarter to quarter, let alone game to game.

The first half was right out of Carlesimo’s script, with the Nets jumping out to a 22-point lead by the middle of the second quarter through exquisite ball movement and tight defense.

But then came the letdown, a common theme all season.  Careless ballhandling, forced jump shots and poor box outs gave New Orleans life going into the fourth quarter, even if they had to make do without first-overall draft pick Anthony Davis, who banged his shoulder late in the third quarter and did not return.

The ineptitude peaked with just over five minutes remaining in the game. The Nets attempted to call timeout, only to have a lazy Williams allow Greivis Vasquez to steal the ball.  Williams then had to commit his fourth foul to prevent a fast break that could have easily reduced the Nets’ tenuous four-point lead.

Still, the Nets, who moved back into fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 34-24, 1 1/2 games behind the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks, were again able to escape with a win over an inferior opponent thanks to better end-game execution.

And, for once, no thanks to Johnson.

His legend may be growing with every buzzer-beating dagger, but who knows if Johnson’s heel becomes a recurring issue?  That’s why it was crucial for other Nets to step up on Tuesday night and take the reins during closing time.

For this is a team which has more than one capable quarterback for the two-minute drill.  If only they could execute it more often.

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

How big was it for the Nets to close out a game WITHOUT Joe Johnson on the floor? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…

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