By Steve Lichtenstein
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Is there some Bizarro World setting on TVs these days that I’m not aware of?
What a strange viewing day. The Jets and the Nets were on almost back-to-back Sunday starting at 1 p.m., with maybe an hour in between for me to get reacquainted with my family.
My two favorite teams — neither of which has provided the joyous experience of witnessing a championship celebration since I was in grade school — couldn’t have been on more different paths when their respective seasons began.
The Jets entered the season with most experts (and many fans like me) giving them little respect for the talent on their roster. First-year general manager John Idzik slashed away at the bloated payroll, in the process trading away the team’s signature superstar, cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Jets then entrusted rookie Geno Smith to quarterback an offense that seemed to be devoid of playmakers.
This was expected to be a team that would struggle to pick up wins due to an overall lack of skill on offense and youthful transgressions.
The Nets, on the other hand, are on pace to break records for spending this season, thanks to owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s approval of the draft-day trade for future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to bolster the Big Three of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez.
The Nets are a deep, experienced (or old, if you’re a Knicks fan) team with far-reaching dreams. Prokhorov couldn’t have been clearer when he explained his five-year plan on the YES Network on Friday.
The Jets are coached by Rex Ryan, a man many love to hate for his bombast related to his team’s potential. He’s had ups and downs in his four-plus-year tenure, but many forget the back-to-back AFC Championship games he steered a flawed club to upon his hiring. He has his foibles, especially when the Jets have the ball, but he can certainly game-plan a defense and the players seem to play hard for him.
Jason Kidd was named head coach of the Nets about 10 days after he retired from the game in June. Kidd is universally loved—for the way he played the game. His hiring drew raves from the basketball community, even though no one really knows whether this experiment on the bench will work. Yesterday was Kidd’s coaching debut as he was suspended for the Nets’ first two games due to his 2012 DWI arrest and subsequent guilty plea.
Both teams began the day at .500, with the Jets’ 4-4 mark considered to be an overachievement. The Nets were at 1-1, way too early in the season to define them.
The Jets, however, were coming off an embarrassing 49-9 debacle in Cincinnati last week. If they were in the English Premier League, a few more games like that would have them relegated to a lower division.
The Nets, meanwhile, were on a high after defeating the two-time defending champion Heat, 101-100, in Brooklyn on Friday. The performance put everyone on notice that the Nets could in fact compete with the league’s best right now.
With the Jets secondary in a sad state after Andy Dalton shredded it last week, I was having nightmares imagining what Drew Brees and the prolific Saints were going to do Sunday. New Orleans was a legitimate contender in the NFC at 6-1 and a 7-point road favorite.
The Nets were in Orlando yesterday, where the Magic sported a roster awfully similar to the one that finished with the worst record in the NBA last season. The Nets easily swept the Magic in their four meetings.
The Jets were banged up. Smith was barely acquainted with his wide receivers and tight ends, especially after leading receiver Jeremy Kerley exited the game with an elbow injury in the second quarter. The Jets received another blow when safety Antonio Allen, the player most responsible for covering tight ends like New Orleans star Jimmy Graham, suffered a possible concussion during the game.
The Nets had their full complement of players. In fact, they had a superfluous number in their rotation. Kidd managed to find time to get 11 of his players into the game during the first half. Sure, Williams and reserve forward Andrei Kirilenko were working their way back from injuries, but Williams at least was not expected to be limited like he was in the first two games.
So what happened?
The Jets played with tremendous heart to pull off a 26-20 upset. They used what they had and made no excuses. Smith completed only eight passes, with only two to players who were Jets at the end of September.
At the start of the second quarter, the Jets pounded the Saints with a varied running attack to drive almost the full length of the field. Chris Ivory, who gained 93 of his 139 rushing yards in the first half, was a beast. However, when the Jets got inside the Saints 5-yard line, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called a couple of rollout pass plays that did not work and the Jets had to settle for a field goal to trim the Saints’ lead to 7-6.
Mornihinweg did not repeat that mistake. The next two times the Jets got close, they ran it in for touchdowns to take 20-14 lead into the locker room.
The Jets’ defensive stats looked ugly by the game’s end, with Brees completing 30 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns to Graham. But the Jets also found a way to come up with the big play when needed. They turned two interceptions into 10 points. Second-year linebacker Quinton Coples thwarted a reverse on a key fourth-down play midway through the fourth quarter.
And, most crucially, when the Saints got the ball back at the two-minute warning needing a touchdown to win, the Jets defense didn’t wilt. It was Coples again who applied the pressure on Brees to force the Saints to turn it over on downs.
Following the Jets’ pleasant surprise, I turned my attention to the Nets, who weren’t going to have any trouble with the woeful Magic, right?
Well, the Nets played like a) they were still hung over from partying after the Heat win, b) they thought this was a summer league game and didn’t want to expend too much energy on either end, c) they knew in advance how many minutes they were going to play no matter how badly they performed, or d) all of the above.
The Nets employ one of the tallest teams in the League, yet they were out-rebounded, 54-42, and outscored in the paint, 42-26. Brooklyn settled for jump shots, and they weren’t falling. Two days after shooting 48.5 percent from the floor (50 percent from three-point land) and attempting 39 free throws, the numbers dropped to 38 percent (23.5 percent from behind the arc) and 15 free throw attempts yesterday.
After trailing 41-38 at halftime, what adjustments did Kidd and his extensive staff make?
None that were apparent to this viewer. The Nets surrendered an unseemly 66 points to the Magic in the second half, making rookie guard Victor Oladipo look like the next Chris Paul. As Orlando extended the lead early in the third quarter, Kidd did not bother to call time out until the Nets were down by 14 points.
This game had nothing to do with minute limits, chemistry, the uneven officiating, or any other excuse the Nets want to make. It was simply one team outworking another.
And that’s what makes sports so fascinating to watch. You can’t know for certain what will transpire. My son Jack’s basketball coach always ends his update e-mails with this tag line from an old quote: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
In that reality, I guess it’s not so hard to understand how the Jets beat the Saints and the Nets lost to the Magic. It’s not bizarre at all.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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