By Steve Lichtenstein
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I could feel it coming as soon as the fourth quarter buzzer sounded on Saturday night.
Despite being encouraged by the Nets’ inspired basketball in a 101-95 loss in Los Angeles, I just knew I was in for a letdown Sunday as the Nets invaded Phoenix.
Back-to-back on the road after a tough defeat, no Joe Johnson (sidelined with a right leg contusion)—the Nets were being set up.
The Nets did not prove me wrong, giving the woeful Suns every opportunity to pull it out, right up to a botched free-throw rebound in the final seconds allowed someone named Hamed Haddadi to attempt a game-tying five-footer.
But this time, at least, the Nets found a way to hold on as Haddadi rammed the shot hard off the glass, giving the Nets a much-needed 102-100 win. The escape upped the Nets’ record to 3-1 at the halfway point of their season-defining eight-game road trip and solidified their fourth-place position in a tight Eastern Conference.
In the Nets’ case, the quantity of victories takes precedence over their quality.
I certainly expected the Nets’ level of play in Phoenix to be a far cry from Saturday, when they went toe-to-toe with the contending Clippers for three-plus quarters. It took late Nets’ miscues at both ends and some marvelous feats from Los Angeles point guard Chris Paul to determine the outcome.
Still, a loss last night would have been beyond atrocious. The Suns, who had dropped eight of their previous 10 contests to fall into the Western Conference cellar, should have been roadkill for a team with the Nets’ aspirations.
The Suns were shorthanded up front without injured centers Marcin Gortat and Jermaine O’Neal, yet they somehow manhandled the Nets on the offensive glass (accumulating an embarrassing 25 offensive rebounds). Nets power forward Reggie Evans was able to keep Clippers star Blake Griffin in check, yet Phoenix second-year forward Markieff Morris proved too beastly in snaring nine offensive rebounds.
In addition, despite having limited modes of scoring, the Suns took advantage of the Nets’ poor transition defense and blown pick-and-roll coverages to break into triple digits. Goran Dragic toyed with the Nets, creating his own shot (scoring 31 points on 10-for-19 shooting) or feeding open teammates (12 assists) as the Nets continued their flawed plan of ignoring the three-point line.
That burned the Nets in the third quarter, with Wesley Johnson going off for 17 points to help Phoenix eviscerate the Nets’ 16-point lead and enter the final stanza ahead, 76-75.
Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo was again slow to adjust, making his first substitution of the second half with 3:26 remaining in the third quarter and the Nets’ lead cut to 66-62. It’s mind-boggling how Carlesimo, having lived through the pains of his players’ inconsistent efforts for 32 games, especially all these infamous third quarters, sticks with certain lineups for lengthy periods, with the misguided faith that they can turn things around on their own.
Fortunately, the Suns were too inept to maintain the momentum to pull away and Carlesimo eventually played the right cards when it counted.
He pulled power forward Kris Humphries from the abyss and was rewarded with a 17-point, eight-rebound performance in 28 minutes, his longest run since the beginning of December.
With Joe Johnson inactive, Carlesimo started Keith Bogans, experimented with MarShon Brooks, but correctly settled on C.J. Watson, who was huge in the fourth quarter (scoring 12 of his 14 points).
And Carlesimo gets credit for having his defense put the screws to Wesley Johnson in the fourth quarter, with both Bogans and Gerald Wallace hounding Johnson into a 1-for-7 period.
Still, thanks to the Nets’ own blunders, including five fourth-quarter turnovers, Humphries’ blown dunk with 4:30 remaining in a three-point game, and a missed Wallace free throw with 14 seconds left, the Suns never had to set.
So Carlesimo shrewdly had Deron Williams foul Dragic with 3 seconds remaining before Phoenix could attempt a game-tying three-pointer and even reinserted center Brook Lopez to strengthen the Nets on the block for Dragic’s intentional miss of his second free throw. But Lopez could not grab the rebound, which put the game in Haddadi’s oversized but clumsy hands.
It’s funny how, with Haddadi’s miss, the Nets go to Portland for Wednesday’s match with a much different mindset, considering I originally felt much more confident about the Nets’ postseason prospects after the Clippers’ loss than I did after last night’s muck.
But then I realized, at this point of the season, the results are all that matters.
I’m not going to get down after a win.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.