By Steve Lichtenstein
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In a word, the best description of the Nets offense this season is that it’s been offensive.
That is, to the eyes of their fans who expected far more from a roster that was created with the intent to compete for an NBA championship.
Instead, the Nets have been sinking in the Atlantic like the Titanic, now at 3-10 after Sunday’s 109-97 defeat to Detroit at the Barclays Center. The loss, lowlighted by another nightmarish third quarter, was the Nets fifth straight with a hellish Thanksgiving week coming up–four games in five nights, with three of them on the road.
Now, at first glance, you might think I should look elsewhere to rant after the Nets put up 97 points yesterday. When you look deeper, however, you’ll realize that the final tally was skewed by Joe Johnson’s phenomenal performance, one in which he scored 34 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter when the Nets tried to come back from 16 points down.
The remaining Nets combined to shoot about 39 percent against the league’s worst field goal percentage defense. Two days after a horrific outing in Minnesota produced an unseemly assist to turnover ratio of 7 to 20, the Nets turned the ball over another 18 times to the Pistons, seven of them in the dreaded third quarter when Detroit turned a seven-point halftime deficit into a 12-point lead.
Yes, some of the blame for the Nets’ slump can be attributed to injuries, particularly to center Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams. Lopez had been a beast inside before landing on teammate Kevin Garnett’s foot in Phoenix 10 days ago, with the resulting ankle injury forcing him out of the Nets’ last five games.
Still, injuries are a part of life for all NBA teams. No one is crying a river in Chicago, where Derrick Rose seems to have lost another season with a knee injury—and he’s a recent MVP winner.
And it’s not like the Nets as a team were an offensive juggernaut when those guys played anyway. Brooklyn eclipsed 100 points (before any overtimes) in just two of its first eight games: once against the tanking Jazz and the other against Miami, when Lopez was limited to 20 minutes due to foul trouble and Williams scored only eight points in 27 minutes.
Thanks to all their offseason acquisitions, the Nets, even without injured key reserves Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko in addition to the above-mentioned duo, still should have had enough weaponry to carry them past teams like the Bobcats and Pistons.
Unfortunately, the Nets offense, despite all the talent, too often falls into ruts where they simply struggle to score.
The Nets’ go-to plan seems to revolve around a series of pick-and-pops set by their bigs at the elbows. No one dives to the basket or posts up. Well, except for guys like Reggie Evans and Mason Plumlee—you know, the ones you don’t want to see get the ball down there unless they have an uncontested dunk.
The perimeter, especially around the key, is quite clogged. Eventually, someone will free himself for one of those inefficient mid-range jump shots. The ball goes through the hoop maybe once in every three attempts.
Oh, there have been some good dribble drives and kickouts, but they’ve often landed in the hands of players like Shaun Livingston, Garnett and Andray Blatche—the team’s worst three-point shooters. Then they have to start the process all over. Mostly, though, these few forays into the restricted area have yielded wild attempts at the rim followed by prayers that the refs will bail them out with a foul call.
Sometimes, like in Sunday’s third quarter, the Nets use an inverted offense, stationing Blatche and Garnett at the elbows and looking to run their guards off screens along the baseline. The idea is to take advantage of the Nets’ size in the backcourt, where Livingston and Johnson often tower over their defenders.
Except that it hasn’t worked as diagrammed. Opponents have figured out Livingston, who initially filled in quite capably for Williams but is now defended using the axiom that he won’t shoot from any distance beyond 12 feet. Livingston is a woeful 3-for-18 from the field over the last three games.
The Nets failed to score in the paint in the third quarter yesterday, going 0-for-7. Even worse, when the ensuing shots did not fall, the Pistons took off the other way on fast breaks as the floor was not balanced properly. Add in the turnovers and all of a sudden the Pistons turned the third quarter into a layup drill, outscoring the Nets, 34-15.
Then, when the players get frustrated, we see a lot of isolations in fourth quarters, as each player thinks they have to take it upon themselves to mount a comeback. Johnson has been hot lately—last week, not so much.
It would be helpful for the Nets if Paul Pierce could regain his form from prior to his groin injury, which also occurred in Phoenix (that was one costly victory). After yesterday’s 5-for-13 effort, Pierce is shooting just 32 percent from the field in his last four games. He looks nothing like the player he was last season, or even the first few games this year.
Blatche has been an even bigger disappointment. He has so much talent with his ability to both handle the ball and shoot from various angles. He should have been the primary beneficiary from Lopez’ injury, just like when he averaged 17.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game when Lopez was out for seven games last season.
Instead, Blatche has been a turnover machine, traveling virtually every other time he tries to beat his man with a quick first step, and a bricklayer when he tries to shoot from mid-range off the dribble.
However, when the Nets positioned Blatche inside, like in the final minutes in Charlotte on Wednesday, he has been fairly effective.
Big men shooting from mid range, poor three-point shooters setting up behind the arc, no one in position to challenge for offensive rebounds—these are all spacing issues that have befuddled rookie coach Jason Kidd and his staff all season, with and without the featured performers.
Kidd seems to be out of answers after going with the end of the bench for much of the fourth quarter Sunday. Thanks to Mirza Teletovic waking up from his season-long slumber to nail three three-pointers and Johnson, the Nets did trim the Pistons’ lead to five points with three minutes to go, but then three consecutive failed possessions halted the rally.
With Lopez and Williams unavailable, Kidd has to alter his offensive scheme. Livingston can’t be as effective as D-Will on the pick-and-roll when he’s no threat to shoot coming around the screen. Instead of trying to get Garnett off early–and then stashing him on the bench after five minutes—Kidd should run plays to free up Pierce in the middle of the court where he works best. Pierce has enough basketball sense to find open teammates, whether it’s Johnson in the short corner or Livingston cutting on the weak side. And there should always be one big man near the rim to clean up on drive-and-dishes and offensive putbacks.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that it was too soon for the Nets to panic. I’m sure the recent injury blitz has bought Kidd even more time before management starts thinking about making major changes.
That means, unless Kidd corrects the problems with his players’ spacing, expect the stink emanating from the Nets’ offense to continue to proliferate NBA arenas.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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