Lichtenstein: Bulls Comeback Puts Nets, Carlesimo On Brink
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By Steve Lichtenstein
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Years from now there will be many who’ll remember Game 4 of the Nets/Bulls Eastern Conference quarterfinals as ‘The Nate Robinson Game”, calling yesterday’s game “An Instant Classic.”
I wish the Nets’ incomprehensible 142-134 triple overtime loss in Chicago could be wiped from my memory bank in an instant. The only time I want it ever to come up again is when someone asks me, “Why didn’t P.J. Carlesimo get to keep his coaching job in Brooklyn?”
Forget about removing the interim tag from his title, this ignominious defeat, which set the Nets back to down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, should figuratively place Carlesimo under the guillotine, with the final drop of the knife coming as early as the aftermath of Monday night’s Game 5 in Brooklyn.
The reason is that while the loss may have appeared to be a once-in-a-generation fluke created by the ungodly shot-making of Chicago’s reserve guard, who scored 12 straight points in a 1:42 span to spark a Bulls’ comeback from 14 points down late in the fourth quarter, it was hardly unforeseeable.
As I mentioned when I wrote my series preview predicting the Bulls in six, the Nets have made a habit of coming undone throughout this season. These swoons have occurred most frequently in third quarters, but nevertheless, I wrote that all it took was one time in a short series for the Nets to hang themselves for good.
This one, though, ranks right up there with the worst choke jobs in New York sports history. (I so wanted to compare this to one of the Jets’ past crashes, like the Browns debacle in the 1987 playoffs, but this one’s in its own category).
When Brooklyn guard C.J. Watson took off on his breakaway dunk with 3:16 remaining in the fourth quarter, I presumed it would be impossible for Chicago to recover from a 16-point deficit despite all the evidence form past collapses.
Except that Watson blew the dunk, the Bulls intentionally fouled the Nets’ bricklaying free-throw shooting forwards, and, before I could come to grips with what just happened, the game was tied and headed to the first of three overtimes.
There were so many little moments where I was ready to throw my remote through the television screen, like when Carlesimo set up the final possession of the fourth quarter for Deron Williams. How many times has Joe Johnson saved the Nets with clutch buckets in end-game situations this season? Five? Eight? He’s clearly earned the right to be the go-to guy on the final shot.
Instead Williams, who was gassed by the fourth quarter from playing all but five minutes of the game and chasing Robinson in the final minutes, could not get the jump shot to go down.
Before that there was the five-second call with 1:11 left, when forward Gerald Wallace was unable to inbound the ball when Watson fell. Most coaches, like Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, keep a clock in their head and call time out before turning the ball over in such a crucial situation.
But the bigger issue is that Carlesimo has too often not been able to come up with counters when the games have taken new turns. Runs are the norm in the NBA, but no one serves them up in such outlandish portions as the Nets.
Look, Robinson made some great shots, but it was not like he was Michael Jordan beating defenders one-on-one and elevating over everyone. Most of Robinson’s looks came off standard pick-and-rolls, and mostly at the expense of Brooklyn center Brook Lopez. When Robinson started heating up, it behooved the Nets to try to take him out any way, any how. That’s what the elite coaches in the League, like Thibodeau, do.
On offense, the Nets got away from the game plan that generated 109 points in a little over 44 minutes against one of the toughest defenses in the League. The Nets had great success moving the ball, side-to-side and inside-out, which is the only way to beat the Bulls’ strong-side overloads. But the end-game plays seemed to resort to one-on-one moves, playing right into the Bulls’ horns.
The Nets turned the ball over, committed fouls (and technical fouls) and did a poor job of managing the clock—all the things that will invariably cause a team to lose a lead.
So who do you blame when a team consistently loses its composure at the most inopportune moments and for such lengthy stretches?
Most often, and in this case deservedly so, it’s the coach.
In many ways it’s unfair, because Carlesimo stepped in to right the Nets’ ship when Avery Johnson had them floundering at 14-14 in December. The record will show that the Nets went on to win 49 games to finish fourth in the East, no small achievement even if it felt like they left some victories on the table. For the most part, the Nets play hard for Carlesimo and the players (and media) seem to respect him.
I know Carlesimo isn’t the one missing free throws or failing to box out underneath, but he is the brain behind the game. He has the responsibility for devising better strategies before these runs snowball.
Yesterday’s loss wasn’t just one that put the Nets on the brink. It also signaled a loss of confidence in the fans’ eyes that Carlesimo can take the Nets to the next level.
That is why, barring an unlikely comeback to take this series, Carlesimo cannot be the Nets’ coach in 2013-14.
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