By Steve Lichtenstein
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This whole season in Brooklyn hasn’t gone as planned, so why should we start now?
After the Nets’ second consecutive offseason spending spree, I had joined many who deemed the Nets ready to contend for that elusive NBA title.
Injuries, chemistry, and coaching issues combined to shatter those expectations as the Nets have stumbled to a 9-17 start, losing at tanking Philadelphia last night, 121-120, in overtime.
After watching that disgraceful loss, I was all prepared to slam the Nets for their lack of toughness — until the news broke today that center Brook Lopez played the last couple of quarters with a broken bone in his right foot.
That’s the same foot Lopez broke twice during the 2011-12 season. Lopez will need more surgery, which will almost certainly prematurely end this campaign.
So now the Nets’ world is supposed to collapse under its own dead weight. After all, Lopez is their leading scorer, a truly efficient offensive machine who was wrecking havoc both on the low block and on those mid-range set shots he loves.
Instead of making a snap judgment, this time I’ll reprise the Chinese proverb suggested by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
The Nets may be 2-7 in games Lopez has missed earlier this season with ankle injuries, but let’s not forget that six of those losses occurred when the Nets were also without point guard Deron Williams (counting the game in Charlotte where D-Will played just 13 minutes before exiting with his own ankle injury.)
Since Williams’ return, the Nets have looked like a much different team on offense. When the Nets played the Sixers last Monday without Lopez, they racked up 130 points.
They just played a different style. It was more like coach Jason Kidd’s Knicks from a year ago. Spread the floor with shooters and let Williams run various pick-and-rolls. If the defense ran out to close on three-point shooters, plenty of driving lanes were available. The ball moved beautifully, much more than when they dumped it into Lopez and watched him make his move.
The Nets have plenty of offensive weapons to make up most of what gets lost by Lopez’s injury. Reserve Andray Blatche has always averaged in the high teens during Lopez’s past absences.
Forward Paul Pierce looks like he’s getting back to his “Truth” form after battling early-season injuries. Pierce, who had team-highs of 24 points and 10 rebounds last night, hit the clutch three-pointer that put the Nets ahead by one with 16 seconds remaining in overtime.
Forwards Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson combined to shoot 11-22 from three-point land last night. With the Nets getting Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett back for Monday’s home game versus Indiana, not to mention Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry at some other point down the road, scoring shouldn’t be the issue.
No, most of the Nets’ problems, at least recently, have been on the other end. Basically, the Nets have been a soft team to play against, and a good chunk of the blame went to Lopez.
I really don’t want to hear any statistical metric claiming how wonderful Lopez has been in defending the paint. If you watch the games, you can see how much damage to the Nets’ defensive side is being caused by both his positioning and effort.
Simply put, a seven-footer should have grabbed more than the five defensive rebounds last night by default. I get that Sixers center Spencer Hawes is a more perimeter-oriented center, but there were many opportunities for Lopez to get into rebounding position, yet he didn’t deign to exert himself, even prior to the injury.
For the second straight game, the Nets were brutalized on the boards by their opponents. The Sixers started a front line comprised of Hawes, Thaddeus Young and Hollis Thompson. Not exactly Bird, McHale and Parrish. Yet they out-rebounded the Nets, 49-36.
Even Lopez’s shot-blocking is overrated. With all of the help Lopez supposedly provides, the Nets were still outscored in the paint by a whopping 66-30 margin. Part of it was due to the Sixers’ overwhelming 21-11 advantage in second-chance opportunities, often the result of Lopez being out of position, leaving the rest of the Nets scrambling and unable to box out without leaving others open for three-point shots.
It’s true that Lopez has not been the sole culprit. Too many Nets just don’t “get after it.” There’s a lot of arm-reaching for balls and late reactions. Where’s the hustle? Their mindset should be like John Favreau’s in “The Replacements” — “I’m gonna get the ball!” Instead, it’s “Eh, someone else will get it.”
It hasn’t gotten through to the Nets that extra possessions matter, especially in tight games. Teletovic, who earned a second start this week, has cost his team several times with that attitude, including on the jump ball to start overtime.
General manager Billy King mentioned “toughness” as the Nets’ major area that required improvement following their disappointing Game 7 loss at home to Chicago in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs.
With that in mind, I thought King got it right when he spent the past summer (and lots of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s money) trading for future Hall of Famers Garnett and Pierce.
Though aging, the duo brought the desired edge and championship pedigree to Brooklyn. Surely Garnett and Pierce would transform the Nets into something more than just a fantasy team.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Unfortunately, osmosis doesn’t occur on NBA courts.
Everyone forgets that last season’s Nets had players with grit in the starting lineup. The Reggie Evans/Gerald Wallace forward combination was certainly tough. The problem was that both players had the shooting accuracy of typical James Bond villains, even when at point-blank range.
Again, the Nets had to make a move since it’s hard to win in the playoffs when your forwards often combined to contribute, say, six points to the offense in those games.
But before King decides to blow up this current incarnation, which would be hard to do without any draft picks to proffer or salary cap space (the Nets reportedly applied for a Disabled Player Exception, which would allow them to sign a player to a one-year $5.15 contract), let’s see what happens if Garnett plays more center (and more in general), if Teletovic can handle the dirty work required of power forwards, and if Blatche can keep his head on straight.
The Lopez injury might not be the death knell everyone seems to think.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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