By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s no secret that the Nets’ 4-2 start to this young NBA season carries an asterisk because the combined record of their six opponents is 13-28. Brooklyn’s upcoming three-game western swing will surely provide a bigger test for Lionel Hollins’ squad. Starting with Wednesday’s game in Phoenix, the Nets will play seven games in 11 days, with all but one (Milwaukee) versus teams that are legitimate postseason contenders.
The last thing the Nets need at this time is an unhappy Joe Johnson.
Johnson, a 2014 All-Star and the Nets’ go-to scorer down the stretch of tight games, is not one who usually shares his beefs with the media.
Shortly after Sunday’s 104-96 home victory over Orlando however, Johnson tweeted “I’m off this —t!!” When asked to elaborate after Tuesday’s practice, the normally soft-spoken Johnson ripped into his team for playing “selfish” basketball. Johnson feels that when the Nets have had the ball his teammates “kind of exhaust their options and then when there’s nothing else for them, then they’ll pass it when they have to.”
The outburst seemed strange, considering the Nets are third in the league in points scored per 100 possessions. Their assist ratio may be middle of the pack, but it’s not because the ball isn’t shared.
Johnson leads the team with 16 field goal attempts per game, while 18 other teams have at least one player who shoots more often. The Warriors’ “Splash Brothers” duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who will host the Nets on Thursday, chuck up 18.5 and 16.6 shots per game, respectively.
At times, the Nets exhibit exquisite ball movement, using both sides of the court to generate good looks at the basket. They are second in the league in both field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage.
Still, the Nets’ attack can sometimes get bogged down by isolation one-on-one basketball. It’s Hollins’ job to minimize those possessions and enforce the team game that has been proven successful by the league’s elite.
Of course, Johnson wouldn’t specifically identify his target(s), so I’ll take over and surmise who is responsible for getting under his skin, in order of most culpable:
1. Brook Lopez
The Nets 7-foot center has been up and down since returning from right foot surgery that prematurely ended his 2013-14 season after 17 games, followed by a mid-foot sprain that kept him out of the first two games this season.
Two other quotes from Johnson give Lopez the edge here. One easy clue was when Johnson said, “Defensively, we help from time to time.” Lopez’s defensive deficiencies were so glaring on Sunday that Hollins kept him glued to the bench for the entire fourth quarter after Nikola Vucevic abused Lopez to the tune of 27 points through three quarters.
Johnson also said that “the Minnesota game (last Wednesday was) obviously a game we definitely should have won. I thought this last game we played against Orlando was almost a carbon copy.”
The common characteristic in both games was an opposing center named Nikola, which must be the comic book-reading Lopez’s Kryptonite. The Timberwolves’ Nikola Pekovic dominated Lopez at both ends and made the key plays in the end game to lift Minnesota to the win.
In addition to poor defense and rebounding, Lopez has also come under attack for his disdain for passing out of the post. Lopez has one assist in 115 minutes of floor time this season. He has been guilty of taking an excessive number of forced shots, and that could have contributed to Johnson going off on the Nets’ ball movement issues.
2. Deron Williams
The point guard is usually the player ultimately responsible for the offense’s performance. D-Will has been regaled for his recent play, winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. He seems to be clear of the chronic ankle issues that have limited his game the last two seasons.
Williams, however, sometimes has a tendency to look for his own shot first, pounding the ball while attempting to set up his defender. Johnson may have been referring to Williams when mentioning teammates who pass the ball later in the shot clock, which can doom possessions.
3. Jarrett Jack
Jack was acquired over the summer as a de facto replacement for Shaun Livingston, who got paid by Golden State in free agency. Though they are playing similar minutes and bench roles (before Livingston jumped into the starting five after the Lopez injury), they are not the same player. Livingston had length and court vision; Jack has a mid-range jump shot. I can guess which Johnson prefers.
4. Mirza Teletovic
The ball is in and out of the Bosnian Bomber’s hands in a matter of nanoseconds, almost always sent away on an arc towards the basket. I’m not sure how you can blame him though because he is shooting 52 percent from the floor and 44 percent from behind the 3-point line. Teletovic does have seven assists in 117 minutes, so he’s no Lopez. Maybe Johnson wants Teletovic to cool off on some of those heat checks.
5. Other Culprits
Less likely are players such as Mason Plumlee, who has been working on one-on-one low-post moves which have resulted in some ugly field goal attempts. Or Bojan Bogdanovich, who Hollins wants to be MORE aggressive when playing with the first unit. Alan Anderson has shot way over his head (55.6 percent) to start the season, so his 4.5 field goal attempts per game shouldn’t have set Johnson off. Kevin Garnett is the ultimate team player — for all the dirty work he does, he is allowed to make a few poor choices on mid-range jump shots each game.
Again, Johnson’s rant seems odd given the Nets’ offensive efficiency. Granted, the competition has had something to do with that, but I believe it will be the Nets’ defense that will be more exposed when the better teams come calling.
Plus Johnson should know better than to lash out at a team learning their fourth different system in three years. Jason Kidd was calling the Nets “a process” in April. Now we’re not going to give Hollins a month to fix these mistakes?
Besides, Hollins has already proven that he will make the Nets play his way or else they will be excised from the rotation. In addition to benching (or not re-entering) Lopez on Monday, Hollins has relegated veteran handyman Andrei Kirilenko to garbage time duties.
In the end, Johnson may be correct in his assessment. After all, he is on the inside while I join others in pure speculation.
“I don’t really say much,” Johnson said. “If I’m speaking on something or saying something, then obviously it has to be something. I’m not just talking for my health.”
If he really thinks the Nets will incur “double-digit losses” on this road trip if they don’t change their ways, then we all should take him at his word.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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