By Steve Lichtenstein
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“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”
That iconic quote from the original “Airplane!” flick came to mind as I watched the Nets take another few steps back over the weekend in their pursuit of greatness.
The Nets had already gotten used to playing without center Brook Lopez — whose season was terminated after breaking a bone in his foot back in December — winning 10 of their first 11 games in 2014.
But, just as the Nets were giving fans hope that this season of high expectations could be salvaged, their front line began incurring further depletion. It started with the calf injury to super sub Andrei Kirilenko in Monday’s loss to Toronto and was followed by backup center Andray Blatche tweaking his left hip early in Friday night’s game.
Those injuries couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Nets, who were walloped on the boards in losing to the two best teams in the NBA — 120-95 to the Thunder at home on Friday and 97-96 in Indiana on Saturday.
Not coincidentally, those teams, as well as upcoming opponents San Antonio and Detroit, are equipped with imposing big men, which means that the Nets picked the wrong week to play shorthanded up front.
Ever since coach Jason Kidd’s epiphany of moving Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson up one position number, it was a given that the Nets would struggle a little in the interior.
But maybe not to this degree.
The Nets had no answers for the Thunder at a sold-out Barclays Center on Friday, and not just for MVP candidate Kevin Durant, who only had his 30-plus point scoring streak halted at 12 because his coach displayed mercy after three quarters. No, the Nets were also toasted by power forward Serge Ibaka, who had his way with 25 points on 12-for-12 shooting from the floor. Even stiff center Kendrick Perkins was a factor, converting three out of four attempts in the paint in the first quarter.
But the real devastating numbers were in the rebounding category, where the Nets’ 17 total boards established a new low in the league’s long history.
Through three quarters, the Thunder missed just 23 of their 59 shots. They got the ball back nine times, which is just under a 40-percent return percentage. No wonder the Nets were down by 30.
It only got a little better on Saturday night, when the Nets were much scrappier on the defensive side, but the numbers still showed a lopsided 46-27 rebounding margin in the Pacers’ favor. The 12 additional possessions created by Indiana’s offensive rebounding contributed to 16 extra points.
In a key sequence with about five minutes to go in the game, the Pacers held the ball for over a minute after the Nets failed to corral three consecutive Indiana misfires. The Nets finally fouled Lance Stephenson on the fourth attempt, and his two free throws gave the Pacers a four-point lead.
Meanwhile, the Nets amazingly had gone about nine quarters without a second-chance point until rookie center Mason Plumlee’s hustling three-point play in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, for all of Plumlee’s activity and (relative) athleticism, he hasn’t delivered the rebounding numbers a man of his size should deliver just by standing in the paint. He was shut out in 17 minutes on Friday and only snared one defensive rebound in 19 minutes last night.
Lopez struggles to rebound, but neither Plumlee nor Reggie Evans — whose performances were downright embarrassing in his cameo appearances in the two games — have anywhere near the offensive firepower that Lopez brought to the court.
With Kidd continuing to limit Garnett to five-or-six minute runs every quarter, it had been left to Blatche to pick up the slack. Blatche responded by averaging 16.4 points and eight rebounds per game during the Nets’ five-game winning streak before that incomprehensible loss to the Raptors on Monday.
Kirilenko was also a major cog off the bench, helping the Nets in so many ways, from his multi-purpose defensive skills to his rebounding to his innate court sense that allowed him to find open teammates as well as come away with a majority of 50-50 balls. The Nets are 12-5 in the games that Kirilenko, who missed 26 games earlier in the season due to back spasms, has played. His contributions have not been replicated.
To compensate for all the extra failed defensive stops, it would have been helpful if the Nets received more production out of their nine-figure tandem of Deron Williams and Johnson.
Williams was horrendous in both games, committing three unforced turnovers in the first half on Friday and then, in his return to the starting lineup last night, clanking nine of his first 10 shots through three quarters. Those platelet-rich plasma injections that worked wonders on his chronically sore ankles a year ago don’t seem to be having the same effect this time.
Johnson, who somewhat unexpectedly survived the East All-Star cut, has been the recipient of constant double-teams, which have prevented him from finding his shooting rhythm. Johnson’s late three-pointer last night gave him 16 points, the most he’s had since a 25-point outing against the Knicks — seven games ago.
Fortunately, a bargain-basement pickup at guard has been superb since being promoted to the starting unit in the New Year, and he almost willed the Nets to an upset on Saturday night.
Shaun Livingston, the 6-foot-7 octopus who was the unlucky designee to be the primary defender against Durant and Indiana’s Paul George on back-to-back nights, averaged 20 points per game in the two defeats.
But it went for naught, as the Nets’ third straight loss dropped their record to 20-25, just a game-and-a-half from falling out of the top eight in the putrid Eastern Conference.
The Nets host tanking Philadelphia on Monday before the Spurs/Pistons back-to-back starting on Thursday. However, I haven’t forgotten the previous matchup with the Sixers, who outrebounded the Nets, 49-36, in the infamous double loss in double overtime that cost the Nets both the game and Lopez.
Unlike the “small-ball” experiment that subsequently turned around the Nets’ season, there aren’t too many optimal solutions to this new predicament. Blatche and Kirilenko are both listed as “day-to-day,” which has me thinking the worst since the Nets had Kirilenko’s status as day-to-day for almost two months.
The best thing would be to lift Garnett’s minutes’ restriction, as the 37-year-old is in the top 20 in the NBA in rebounds per 48 minutes and leads the league in defensive-rebounding percentage. But that seems out of the question given Garnett’s mileage and general mood about playing center.
Unfortunately, if the Nets don’t find a way to secure their backboard, they’ll be saving Garnett for games that will never be played. Unlike “Airplane!” their season will have crashed and burned.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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