By Steve Lichtenstein
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Two weeks ago I joined others in the media in labeling the Nets’ 8-game, 17-day road trip as “season-defining.” The old excuses related to new components–the new roster, the new coach, etc.–that were thrown about to explain the Nets’ inconsistencies for five months would surely be worn out by now.
This swing, once and for all, was supposed to give us insight as to who these Nets are –were they serious about making a significant run in the Eastern Conference playoffs or were they merely frauds destined for one-and-done?
Well, the Nets wanted none of that.
For the Nets, both literally and figuratively, have been all over the map.
Consider: The Nets roared out of the gate by pulling away in the second halves to blow out disgraceful Detroit and on-the-rise Dallas. Then they played spirited and competently (at least until the last few minutes) in a loss to Western Conference-contending Los Angeles before turning downright ugly to escape with a win over cellar-dwelling Phoenix. The Nets were terrific again in trouncing another sub-.500 team in Portland before lousy performances in back-to-back defeats at red-hot Denver and desperate Utah dropped their record on the trip to 4-3.
So the Nets will return home for a few days exactly how they left it—in fourth place and capable of going either way. Indefinable.
The remaining schedule, starting with Wednesday’s “circus trip” finale in Cleveland, suggests that there is still a slim shot of moving up. The Nets are four and five games behind the Pacers and Knicks in the loss column but play only three playoff-bound teams in their nine April contests.
Of course, I’ve seen the Nets enough to know that any adversity has the potential to send them spiraling down the standings. Chicago and Atlanta are lurking in striking range to seize home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bulls, Pacers and Knicks all have managed to find ways to remain competitive without the services of key personnel. That doesn’t happen in Brooklyn, with the sole exception of two nice wins before the All Star break while point guard Deron Williams was treating his sore ankles. Usually, the Nets find it acceptable to tank when one of their Big Three is forced to the sidelines.
In December, Brooklyn lost five in a row when All Star center Brook Lopez hurt his foot. The latest casualty is shooting guard Joe Johnson. The Nets’ closer has missed the last four games with a right leg contusion as well as lingering issues with his left heel. Neither Keith Bogans nor MarShon Brooks have stepped up their games to compensate for the loss.
On the brighter side, there were a few games where I thought the spirit of Buck Williams took over the body of power forward Reggie Evans. How else to explain the phenomenon of the offensively-challenged Evans’ recent scoring binges?
Evans has been a rebounding maniac all season, but lately he has been more aggressive around the rim. He manhandled the Trail Blazers to the tune of 22 points and 26 rebounds and then followed it up with a 15-point, 16-rebound night in Denver.
Evans reverted to his more pedestrian output of 4 points in last night’s loss, but I remain encouraged about his potential to keep defenses honest around Lopez.
If only something could bring small forward Gerald Wallace back to life. Though I don’t deny Wallace’s value in other areas, his shooting numbers (34 percent FG, 15 percent from three-point territory) in March have been frightful. Even worse, Wallace is converting less than half his shots from in close, according to 82games.com.
Neither Evans nor Wallace has been able to plug the Nets’ leaky defense on this trip. Over the past six games, the Nets have surrendered an average of 102.5 points per game.
Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo always seems to have a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t look on his face, with the dilemma of managing a roster heavy with one-dimensional players. He needs Wallace and Evans on the court for defense and rebounding, especially with Lopez often out of position on pick-and-rolls (The Clippers’ end game was farcical with Evans having to cover for Lopez no matter whose man set up the screen for point guard Chris Paul). But because Carlesimo chose to add offensive dead end Bogans to the starting lineup to replace Johnson, it put the entire scoring load on Lopez and Williams.
It worked for a half in Utah last night, but then the Nets went cold to start the dreaded third quarter, allowing the Jazz to run up a double-digit lead.
To compound matters, Carlesimo didn’t trust Lopez to handle Al Jefferson in the post. By constantly sending a double team, the Nets gave Utah guard Randy Foye free looks from deep. Foye took advantage by draining 8-of-9 from three-point range, many of which stifled the Nets’ comeback attempts.
The Nets still have a chance to wind up with a winning record on this trip if they take care of business against the free falling Cavs. Most would deem 5-3 a successful run.
On the surface, they’d be right. But, like the conclusion to “The Sopranos”, it feels unfinished. Once again, the Nets failed to make the leap when given the opportunity.
It’s been a strange season in the Eastern Conference, distinguished by the plethora of pitiful teams and the gaggle of stars reserving time on the injured list. Oh, and the juggernaut down in Miami who will only be knocked off in a seven-game series by forces outside of its control.
That leaves the Nets, like the other pretenders, really just fighting for second place. I remain convinced that the Nets are capable of winning a round, even if they blow the home-court seed (the Barclays Center hasn’t exactly been impenetrable anyway).
But that’s only if the Nets wrap up the season in good health and with a better clue as to how to match up with opponents who aren’t going to miss wide-open threes like the dregs they’ve feasted on all year to amass 42 wins.
The last two weeks didn’t change a thing.
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