By Steve Lichtenstein
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Who cares about home-court advantage?
I guess not the Nets.
That’s the implication I took after watching the Brooklyn boys, coming off a successful (and record-breaking) 5-3 road trip, once again come up small in a big spot Thursday night. The Nets fell to undermanned Chicago, 92-90, at the Barclays Center when center Brook Lopez’s potential game-tying jumper at the buzzer wouldn’t go down.
A victory would have solidified the Nets’ hold on the fourth position in the Eastern Conference, the final seed with the extra home game in the first playoff round.
Instead, the Nets (43-32) are now a mere one-and-a-half games ahead of the Bulls, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker, and the Hawks.
And forget about any illusions of the Nets making a late stab to catch either the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks or the third-seeded Pacers. Even if they run the table on their remaining slate (comprised mostly of teams who at this point would rather accumulate lottery ping pong balls than wins), it would take an epic collapse for the Nets to make up the necessary ground to move up in the Conference standings.
The best Nets fans can hope for is that they don’t start blowing the games against sub-.500 teams and finish in that fourth spot.
Then again, it’s not like the Nets have been world-beaters at home this season. In fact, they’ve been nearly as proficient on the road, with 21 wins (another franchise mark), just one-and-a-half games behind their home record.
Sorry, Brooklyn. Despite all the platitudes flowing from the media related to the borough’s spirit following the move last summer from New Jersey, you haven’t made much of a dent on the outcomes.
And this is not a rant stemming from the bitterness of a New Jersey resident or the frustrations following an inexcusable loss.
I’ve been a Nets fan for 40 years, from Long Island to Piscataway to East Rutherford to Newark and, finally, to Brooklyn. I want to see them get back to where they were only 10 years ago, when they made back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals.
They won’t get out of the first round this year if they can’t better defend their home court.
Yes, the turnstiles have been working at or near full capacity all season. But that should have been expected given the combination of a new arena and a competitive team. The Nets would have drawn in Newark if management hadn’t sabotaged the squad in advance of the move.
The Nets need their crowd to be more than spectators. It’s not enough to chant “Brook-lyn” after a superlative play. The fans’ energy has been inconsistent, mirroring their team. It affects the Nets, their opponents and, yes, the officials.
I was especially disturbed to witness a legion of Bulls fans take over the building in the third quarter, when Chicago clawed its way back from an 11-point halftime deficit.
The Nets fans were dead. In the few instances when the pubic address system wasn’t blasting annoying music, I could hear Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo barking instructions from the other end of the court.
The crowd was better in the fourth quarter, but who wouldn’t rise from their seat after those spectacular scores from Nets guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson? In the end, the Nets didn’t even get the friendly whistles that so often go the home team’s way in the NBA.
To be clear, I’m not pinning the loss on the fans. The players and coaches bear that burden, especially when considering how depleted the opponent was.
Despite showing up with an active roster consisting of only two legitimate big men (one of whom was the fossilized Nazr Mohammed), the Bulls whipped the Nets on the boards, with an incomprehensible 46-30 edge.
“In the second half,” said Carlesimo, “they were the more aggressive team, the more physical team.”
Carlesimo’s curious decisions compounded the problem. I get apoplectic whenever Carlesimo benches starting forward Gerald Wallace in favor of the smaller Keith Bogans. In addition to opting for an end-game lineup featuring two players (Bogans and power forward Reggie Evans) who did not score all game, Carlesimo could have used Wallace’s nose for the ball in such a physical contest.
Carlesimo said Wallace wasn’t hampered by the foot injury that caused him to miss Wednesday’s win in Cleveland. He said that he wanted to stick with Bogans (even though he has missed 15 of his last 16 shots, not including a three-pointer negated by an illegal Evans screen with five minutes remaining), preferring not to bring a cold Wallace back after such a long break.
I felt Carlesimo also erred by starting his five-man reserve unit in the fourth quarter to face Chicago’s starters (with Nate Robinson in at point guard for the foul-plagued Kirk Hinrich). The unit opened with four consecutive turnovers to initiate the Bulls’ run to the lead.
In an understatement, Carlesimo said, “I thought our bench gave us a good lift in the second quarter and not as much in the bridge between the third and fourth quarters.”
It wasn’t exactly a fair fight, P.J.
I mean, why was Kris Humphries playing? This isn’t rec ball. In addition to giving the Nets nothing on the scoreboard, he had no chance defending Bulls star Carlos Boozer, who caught fire in the second half to torch the Nets for 19 of his 29 points.
The bigger issue was that this game shouldn’t have even been close. All Star center Joakim Noah, key forwards Taj Gibson and Marco Bellinelli, plus shooting guard Richard Hamilton were all in street clothes. Oh, and how can I forget 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, who has yet to play a minute this season while recovering from a knee injury?
“I didn’t think we were going to run away from them,’ said Carlesimo. “We really had opportunities early when they were struggling, and I thought we were defending well, but we missed some opportunities to build a bigger lead. They’re not a team that’s going to go away.”
In other words, the Bulls, on the road with a makeshift lineup, simply played harder, which should be unacceptable in a game of such magnitude.
Now the Nets have to entertain the possibility of some or all of those missing components returning to active duty for the Bulls come playoff time if indeed they’re matched up (Like most fans, I’m pulling for the Hawks, who have enough problems getting people to come to their own arena). Rose’s comeback date remains a mystery, but he sure looked like he was rarin’ to go in his pregame workout last night.
I think the Nets, with their favorable schedule, will hold onto the fourth seed. In that case, it’s always beneficial to play a Game 7 on your home floor. However, I’m not counting on it to be a slam dunk for these Nets.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
Your thoughts on the vibe at Barclays Center? Nets fans, sound off in the comments…