By Steve Lichtenstein
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Just call the Nets “The Road Warriors.”
A perilous eight-game swing west of Brooklyn? Forget those warnings of impending doom from both critics and fans — like me.
Through two games, including last night’s impressive 113-96 win in Dallas, the Nets are finally beginning to establish an identity—and a brutish one at that.
The win was terrific, but it was the way the Nets won that had me ready to believe that this isn’t just another tease.
It’s one thing to steamroll pitiful Detroit (119-82 on Monday), but to knock off the Mavericks, who had won seven of their previous 10 games while fighting for their playoff lives in a stacked Western Conference, the Nets needed to bring greater fortitude.
Simply put, the Nets are playing tougher, both physically and mentally.
They are a significantly better team when they play this way. They pound the ball inside, leading to advantages in points in the paint (52-34 last night) and getting to the free throw line (a 21-15 edge in FT attempts). They pound the boards (out-rebounding Dallas 45-34) on both ends, making up for any shooting percentage deficiencies through added possessions.
For some reason, they often find it easier to play this way away from the Barclays Center. The Nets are now 18-14 on the road, good for sixth-best in the NBA. Many of their best wins this season have been in the roughest markets, like in Oklahoma City, Boston, Indiana and Manhattan.
Not coincidentally, those happened to have been some of center Brook Lopez’s better games.
Lopez helped set the tone last night as well, as the Nets focused on taking the ball hard to the hole instead of settling for jump shots. They established Lopez early (Lopez had 15 of his game-high 38 points in the opening quarter), with post-ups and cuts into the paint.
Maligned power forward Reggie Evans was just as instrumental doing dirty work. After a brutal stretch where he was killing the Nets with his subpar offensive skills, Evans has stepped up recently in his role as the Nets’ enforcer.
Evans accumulated 22 rebounds, his sixth game of over 20 boards this season (and third this month), while also making Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki earn his points. Then there was the shiver-inducing screen Evans laid on Dallas guard Darren Collison that I felt from my couch.
Backup center Andray Blatche also had a monster first half, scoring 14 points on 6-for-6 shooting while teaming with Lopez for the final five minutes, a rarity in interim coach P.J. Carlesimo’s rotation.
But with all those positives, the Nets were only tied at 51-all when the dreaded third quarter began.
Now, it has been chronicled ad nauseum how the Nets have too often come unglued in this period. A slight momentum shift, a little adversity, and all of a sudden the Nets start playing like an AAU team.
Lately, however, the Nets have been able to unleash their superstar, point guard Deron Williams, to nip these blips in the bud.
Williams, who has been on fire since the All-Star break when he took shots to ease the pain in both ankles, simply wasn’t going to let the Nets lose last night.
Williams put up 26 of his 31 points in the second half (on 11-for-18 shooting from the floor). He had the full repertoire — the crossover, the low post scores, and those devastating pull-ups from the right side in Dallas owner Mark Cuban’s face.
Williams played the entire second half (until he was pulled with 52 seconds remaining when the game was no longer in doubt). Whether it was due to playing in his hometown, the importance of the game, or just that he wanted to stick it to Cuban for not going all in to sign him over the summer as a free agent, Williams did not take a play off on either end.
That energy rubbed off on his teammates. Small forward Gerald Wallace, though still struggling with his confidence on his shot, was all over the court, notching five steals. Backup Keith Bogans had one of his best games, with nine points and two assists, the last on a “What, wait–he’s putting the ball on the floor?” drive-and-dish to a wide-open Joe Johnson in the corner for a dagger three-pointer that put the Nets up by 10 points with three minutes left.
Bogans also did a credible job defending Vince Carter, who was limited to eight points, with his most memorable bucket a deep left-handed three-pointer after a whistle was blown. Carter torched his former club with 20 points in a 98-90 Mavs victory in March 1.
Since that weekend, which also saw the Nets fall hard in Chicago the next night, Brooklyn has taken six of eight games to hang just a game behind the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks, two games up on the Hawks for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Nets are (finally) a season-high 12 games over .500.
The road trip continues with a back-to-back set over the weekend against the contending Clippers and lottery-bound Suns. A pragmatist would be more than content with a split.
But I don’t want the Nets thinking that way. I want to see the same spirit, the “warrior mentality,” that accompanied the Nets to Detroit and Dallas show up in Los Angeles.
No more turning it on and off. With only 14 games to go, the Nets can’t pick their battles if they want to have a home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs.
Then again, if the Nets keep playing at this level, an extra road game may not be so frightful a prospect.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
Will the Nets keep it up? Be heard in the comments…