By Steve Lichtenstein
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Tis the holiday season, with all those confectionery delights, but unfortunately for the Nets, they are running low on cupcakes.

If this past weekend proved anything, it’s that the Nets’ new recipe for the 2012-13 campaign can satisfy the palates of those fans who appreciate the improvement from the bitter aftertaste left by those foul final seasons in New Jersey, but on the other hand still needs tweaking if they want to be taken seriously in the Big Apple as postseason contenders.

The Nets wasted another opportunity last night to turn that impression around, squandering a late fourth-quarter lead in Chicago in an 83-82 loss.

The defeat knocked the Nets’ record versus teams over .500 down to 4-9.  Looking closer, the 13-10 Nets have beaten teams with an aggregate record of 128-176 (42%, dropping to 36% if you remove the Nets’ wins over the Knicks and Clippers), in contrast to the 146-79 (65%) mark held by the Nets’ conquerors.

Yeah, those late-game isolation plays for Joe Johnson work exquisitely against teams like the hapless Pistons, with Johnson beating the buzzer to allow the Nets to escape with a 107-105 double-overtime victory on Saturday. However, when facing a Tom Thibodeau-educated defense, it’s poison.

In the final two minutes last night, the Nets were barely able to get off a decent shot.  A 79-75 lead dissolved amidst a couple of turnovers and two missed jumpers, the last a step-back from banged-up point guard Deron Williams.

That one came after Nets coach Avery Johnson used his final timeout with 14 seconds left to design a potential game-tying play.  It involved a two-man game between Williams and Johnson, with Williams having the option to either hand off to Joe Johnson or set himself up for a one-on-one move on 19-year old Bulls rookie guard Marquis Teague.

Johnson has been the usual go-to guy, but he got trapped on a double-team blitz and lost the ball two possessions prior.  So Williams took the big shot.

Except that Williams has been nursing a variety of injuries that have contributed to his career-worst 39% shooting percentage.  He created enough space to get off a shot from about 15 feet with seven seconds remaining, but he left it short off the front of the rim.  Williams’ desperation three-pointer at the horn for the final score was no consolation.

If that’s the best the Nets could come up with to beat a stout Chicago defense with the game on the line, they won’t be playing basketball for very long in the spring.

This is not a team with a LeBron, Kobe or Carmelo.  Williams, at least until his health improves, is more of a facilitator than a gunslinger.  Johnson has more pure scoring ability, but he has never been required to carry a team solo.

The Nets’ offense, like most NBA teams, works best through ball movement.  There are enough weapons on the court to warrant more ball-sharing in end-game situations.  After a slow start, forward Gerald Wallace has been working to get his three-point shooting percentage up to make him more of a multi-dimensional threat.  And the Brook Lopez/Andray Blatche duo creates enough of an inside scoring presence to give the Nets balance.

But even those dump-ins to the low post were less effective against the Bulls’ agile front line than when either of the centers moved without the ball to receive a pass in the middle of the paint.

Far too often, the Nets have relied on a steady diet of one-on-one isolation plays in fourth quarters to carry them past the better teams, and they’ve gotten their just desserts.  You could add Saturday night’s loss to the ones in Los Angeles and Miami and at home to Minnesota and New York on the Nets’ list of ‘should-have-wons.’  In each case, the Nets’ fourth quarter offense turned as offensive as expired milk.  The stagnation stinks.

It’s easy to look for excuses for last night’s failures.  The Bulls represented the Nets’ fourth opponent in five nights.  However, the conclusion had nothing to do with fatigue.  The Nets weren’t run out of the gym or pounded on the backboards.  They only needed to execute one more offensive set to pull it out.

Then there’s Lopez, who is recovering from a foot sprain that sidelined him for seven games, with coach Johnson monitoring his minutes over the weekend (Johnson did let Lopez play the final 1:26 last night.  A good move–I mean, it’s a foot that could get hurt on any basketball play, not a low-charged battery with a definitive life span.).  The Nets managed to eke out only two wins without their shot-blocking center.

Then again, no one is throwing a pity party for the Bulls, who have played all season without star point guard Derrick Rose.  The 13-9 Bulls also have now won two in a row with backup Kirk Hinrich in street clothes.  It was Nate Robinson and Teague who combined to supply the Bulls with 14 points, seven assists, and only two turnovers.

Unfortunately, the menu doesn’t get any easier from here.  This isn’t college football.  The Nets can’t schedule teams like Detroit every night to boost their postseason chances.  Up next are five more opponents with legitimate playoff chops, starting with a home match-up against Utah on Tuesday.

Johnson has been given appropriate slack for his management of a revamped roster.  It hasn’t been easy finding the right formula among all the new ingredients, especially with the Lopez injury throwing a wrench in the big-man rotation.  A 23-game sample size is way too small to come up with any definitive judgments about his acumen as a coach.

But the new city, arena and roster have set up new expectations.  It’s no longer acceptable to merely beat up and move up from the NBA’s dregs.  This is a team built to contend in the playoffs now.  If the Nets don’t start to play more consistently against non-lottery competition and if the fourth quarter meltdowns continue, there’s always the chance that the Nets’ brass will simply blame the cook.

Are the Nets failing to live up to expectations?  Let us know…


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