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Lichtenstein: Nets Ace Pacers’ Test, Have More To Master Before Playoffs

(Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

(Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns

Very often in sports, it takes a loss to initiate teaching moments for a team.

As YES analyst Mike Fratello astutely (and not for the first time) pointed out in the closing moments of the Nets’ thrilling 117-109 victory in Indiana last night, Brooklyn interim coach P.J. Carlesimo better have a full lesson plan in store for his club as it gets ready to host a playoff game next weekend.

And I might add that Carlesimo should take a look at his own suggestion box to consider a few adjustments.

For the Nets, who were brilliant in opening up a 24-point third quarter lead, played like dunces to allow the physical Pacers to storm back and take the lead with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Fortunately, the Nets were efficient enough down the stretch to come away with the win, which, combined with the Bulls’ loss in Toronto, clinched the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and home court advantage in the first playoff round.

With three games remaining, all versus lottery-bound opponents, the 47-32 Nets are two games behind the Pacers for the third seed. But although Brooklyn swept the season series, Indiana holds the tiebreaker as a division winner, which means the Nets would need help from the Knicks, Celtics and 76ers to move up. Still, their preseason goal of 50 wins is within reach should they decline to rest their top players.

Of course, with the Nets, every silver lining seems to be masked by a cloud.

As the Nets were attempting to cement the win, Nets fans’ smiles inverted when Deron Williams banged his knee running through a screen to defend a George Hill three-pointer with 25 seconds left. The star point guard, who had another monster game with 33 points and 14 assists, hobbled to the bench in terrible pain and limped under his own power to the locker room.

Reports from the Nets locker room indicated that Williams’ injury was nothing major, but Carlesimo still should thank his lucky stars after gambling with his team’s health in going for such a tough win. Small forward Gerald Wallace was inactive after injuring his left heel in Boston on Wednesday and backup Keith Bogans looked rusty following a two-game respite due to a sore back. Carlesimo chose to use the game as a test of the Nets’ readiness for the postseason, so he crossed his fingers that no one else would go down.

Bodies were flying all over the court in Bankers Life Fieldhouse as the Pacers made key adjustments at halftime after surrendering a season-high 69 points. Williams was particularly spectacular in the first half with a 25-point explosion, knocking down 4-of-7 three-pointers.

It was then that Indiana coach Frank Vogel, designer of one of the NBA’s best defenses, realized he needn’t worry about Bogans, who continued his assault on the League’s rims with a 0-for-3 effort from the field (bringing his brick-laying run to 1-for-his-last-21 over his last six games). That allowed Vogel to switch 6-foot-8 forward Paul George onto Williams, who did not register a field goal over the final 22 minutes of the game. George would also often get help to double team Williams near the midcourt line, which resulted in several Nets turnovers that ignited the Pacers fast break.

As usual during these third quarter blues, Carlesimo was late to counter. By the time Bogans (who, to be fair, did an excellent job in the first half in hounding George on defense) was lifted for Jerry Stackhouse, the momentum had shifted and the game turned into a dogfight.

As the game tightened in the fourth quarter, Lady Luck also came to the rescue for the Nets in the form of a fifth foul call on reserve power forward Kris Humphries, whose play to that point indicated that he had no business being on the floor in these games against top-flight opponents.

Carlesimo then had no choice but to pair his two centers, Brook Lopez and Andray Blatche to combat the Pacers on the interior.

After Indiana tied the game at 104-104 on a George three-pointer with 3:15 left, the Nets went on a decisive 9-0 run thanks to a Stackhouse three-pointer, a Lopez driving lay-up, a Blatche putback, and a pair of free throws by Williams.

Of course, the reason Carlesimo had no other option but to cave to those who’ve been hounding him all year to pair his dynamic-scoring duo was because of the Nets’ loss of composure in the third quarter, which saw rebounding machine Reggie Evans get tossed by the refs with two separate technicals in a three-minute span.

Which brings us back to what the Nets most need to ponder during their flight to Toronto for tomorrow’s matinee: Road games are incredibly difficult to get in the playoffs—they become nearly impossible if you let outside forces get in your head and do stupid things, like turn the ball over (9 by the Nets in the second half) or parade the opponent to the free throw line (21 Indiana FT attempts in the second half).

It’s routine for the whistles to be seriously slanted in the home team’s favor (though I’m still waiting for that to happen at the Barclays Center). That doesn’t mean the Nets should stop running their offense inside-out (Lopez scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half) or contesting shots and rebounds. And you certainly can’t behave the way Evans did in earning those game-changing technicals.

It’s been documented ad nauseam how the Nets often come unglued under adversity in third quarters. Nothing’s changed since a Game 2 loss to Minnesota. They still have a habit of taking possessions off and hoping to withstand the opponent’s inevitable run.

Well, they’re not going to be running out to 20-plus point leads every night in the playoffs. And if they blow one of these games, it can be devastating. It’s on Carlesimo to conjure up a rotation that will bring better in-game consistency.

Overall, the Nets still get an A for acing this big test. Indiana entered the game with the second-best home record in the Conference and a top-tier defense. The Nets sneered at those numbers with halfcourt execution that was as solid as I’ve seen all season. And, of equal importance, they found a way to get stops when they needed it.

Their final grade, however, will depend on whether the players and coaching staff learned from their mistakes and whether they can apply those lessons to when the games take on greater meaning.

Do you think Carlesimo and the Nets can learn from their mistakes before the playoffs begin? Share your thoughts below.

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