By Steve Lichtenstein
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Forget the 24-hour rule — I want to file a missing person report.

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It seems that Nets backup center Andray Blatche inexplicably disappeared sometime early in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s 95-90 loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles.

I guess further investigation will conclude that Blatche was safe and sound somewhere on the bench instead of on the court where he belonged, but that would just make coach Avery Johnson guilty of end-game lineup mismanagement.

Memo to Johnson: You are allowed to play starter Brook Lopez and Blatche at the same time.  It is not a requirement to substitute one for the other.

I don’t understand how this was not considered against a team like the Lakers, who routinely bully teams inside with twin 7-footers Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

Nets power forwards Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans put forth a tremendous effort, combining for 21 rebounds, but they simply lack the size it takes to corral the Lakers’ duo, especially since it seemed that Johnson wanted to keep the defensively-challenged Lopez away from the beastly Howard.  The 6-foot-11 Blatche would have provided a different look and possibly a better matchup.

And he would have made a HUGE difference on the offensive end.  After a torrid first half, the Nets could only muster 33 points in the final two quarters.  The Lakers’ adjustments included having Howard basically abandon his duties covering either Evans or Humphries.  Howard hung out on the low block to protect the rim, conceding any Humphries attempt over 10 feet and knowing that Evans wouldn’t shoot unless he had a layup.  Humphries responded with a 2-for-10 performance from the floor.

Howard would have had to at least acknowledge Blatche’s presence in the Nets’ half-court attack.  Blatche torched the woeful Kings for 22 points on 11-for-12 shooting on Sunday night.  He has a multi-dimensional game with the ability to score from mid-range and take his man off the dribble.  Blatche made two of the three shots he took in his 11 minutes last night, so it wasn’t like he had cooled off.

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So instead, the Nets’ second-half strategy seemed to be to load up on long-range jump shots on one end and hack Howard on the other.  Howard certainly was as atrocious as advertised from the free-throw line (4-for-14), but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the Nets’ 1-for-13 brickfest from three-point land.

And, in an unusual turn of events, Howard committed his fifth foul with over five minutes remaining in the game, which is exactly when the Nets began fouling Howard intentionally off the ball.  It almost appeared as if Johnson had the fouling as part of his game plan, so he wanted to put it in force before Howard could foul out — even if it occurred in the midst of a Nets’ mini run that gave them an 84-78 lead.

Of course, the momentum shifted and the Nets soon found themselves behind.  And then the Nets didn’t foul immediately when they needed to, allowing nine seconds to elapse while trailing 91-90 before Deron Williams grabbed Kobe Bryant with just under five seconds left. Williams’ contested three-point try to beat the buzzer was off the mark.

In the end, the Nets wasted a valiant attempt at an upset.  In addition to the hustling Humphries/Evans duo, Gerald Wallace was noticeable flying all over the court in his second game back from an ankle injury, accumulating five steals and three blocks.  Williams, though still inconsistent with his shot, finished with 22 points and 10 assists without any turnovers.

Though they fell behind, 10-0, to start the game, they were able to generate a positive response instead of folding the tent and looking to the next game (Wednesday night at Golden State) like they so often did in their final seasons in New Jersey.  The Nets are playing hard every night.

Unfortunately, the moral victories’ tabulator was also left behind in New Jersey.   This team has much different expectations.  The Lakers, though definitely one of the Western Conference favorites, were missing point guard Steve Nash and playing their first game under new coach Mike D’Antoni after a disjointed start to their season.  They could have been shot down.

Maybe they would have been if Johnson hadn’t kept his Blatche bullet in his chamber.

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Do you think that Avery Johnson mismanaged the lineup in the fourth quarter? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…