By Steve Lichtenstein
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So who’s the soft team now?

It seems like much more than a month ago, but I can remember back when the Nets so physically dominated the Celtics in Boston that it moved coach Doc Rivers to denounce his team as “soft”, the ultimate slap to any NBA player.

Those were the good ole days, when coach Avery Johnson’s Nets brought the fight to teams with strong interior play and rebounding on both ends. They may not have been the best team, but it was fun watching them compete every night. The Celtics, just a game shy of the NBA Finals last season, were so flustered by a second straight defeat to these upstarts from Brooklyn that the only lame response they could muster was to instigate a brawl.

Where did that team go?

For the vast part of December, it’s the Nets who have become the League’s pillows. It’s like I’ve been watching the old New Jersey version. Three of their last four games ended with garbage time. Last night’s 108-93 loss in Milwaukee, just a day after the 93-76 Christmas Massacre of a rematch with Boston, knocked the Nets down to .500 for the first time this year since they were 2-2. The Nets are just a half game away from their familiar home in Lottery Land.

There will be some who will point to injuries as an excuse for this swoon. Center Brook Lopez missed seven games with a foot injury earlier this month, forward Kris Humphries sat out the last two games with an abdominal strain, and star point guard Deron Williams finally took a game off last night to recover from his aching right wrist.

Except that the good teams are at least able to tread water with star players out. Like Chicago (Derrick Rose) and Indiana (Danny Granger).

Then there’s the Knicks, who have excelled in spite of the absences of Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert from their rotation and have even won games without signature star Carmelo Anthony.

Ah, the Knicks. They have somehow gotten into Johnson’s head. I know the NBA is a copycat league and it seems Johnson was enthralled with the way the Manhattanites spanked the defending champion Heat twice this season. Late in November, Johnson slowly began morphing his team into a similar mode, consequences be damned.

You know, go small, spread the floor, and make your opponents guard the three-point line. After the Nets fell in the Garden a week ago, Johnson mentioned something about wanting to get “better spacing.” That’s when he decided to completely abandon the traditional power forward role right from the opening tip.

What a great plan—if your roster is loaded with high-percentage three-point shooters like the Knicks.

Unfortunately, none of the Nets’ rotation players are connecting on more than 40% of their three-point attempts. The Nets are 19th in the League in three-point efficiency, yet have taken the 7th most attempts per game. In these last two losses, the Nets went a combined 11-for-41 (27%) from beyond the arc. So by going small they’re weakening their inside scoring to–what?

Shoot and miss more threes?

Anyway, hasn’t Johnson ever heard of the term “size ADVANTAGE?” I’ve never heard an NBA coach, check that, any basketball coach, complain that his team was too tall.

By removing a big man, it makes a difference to a player like guard Joe Johnson, who uses his 6-foot-7 frame to back down his defender on all those “iso-Joe’s” the Nets run. Johnson hasn’t been as effective going up against the bigger bodies, shooting 37% from the floor in his last four games after looking like he had finally overcome an early-season slump.

The Nets power forward duo of Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans may not have lit up the scoreboard, but they were factors in other areas. Earlier in the year, many of the Nets’ misfires were retrieved by these hungry Nets pounding the offensive glass. With no power forward on the floor, that well has dried up. The Nets were beaten on the boards these last two games by two of the worst teams in the NBA in rebounding differential.

Then there’s the disaster that is the Nets’ defense.

In the Nets’ 3-10 December slide, the Nets have surrendered over 100 points seven times, with only snail-paced Chicago failing to reach 90 points. The Nets’ numbers in both opposing teams’ three-point field goal percentage and points in the paint have fallen precipitously.

Much of it is because I’m always watching Lopez caught out high on a pick-and-roll blitz with no one else on the floor to protect the rim. The paint has been wide open for drivers, cutters, and anyone looking to pick up loose change off a miss.

The Nets prioritized the re-signing of forward Gerald Wallace over the summer so he could guard the superstar small forwards, like LeBron James and Anthony. Well, when the Celtics started twin seven-footers on Tuesday, that meant an undersized Wallace was on Kevin Garnett, not Paul Pierce. Less than four minutes later, Wallace was on the bench with two fouls.

The Nets stayed close early by inserting backup center Andray Blatche to pair with Lopez. But Brooklyn went small in the second quarter and Boston rung up 34 points. The Nets could get no closer than an eight-point margin in the second half.

It was a similar tale last night, with the Bucks scoring at will in their 33-point second quarter and were only mildly threatened thereafter. Not only were the Nets unable to stop Milwaukee’s high-scoring backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis (combined 45 points), but they were also stung by reserves Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy (combined 34 points). So much for small ball being better at defending the three-point line—the Bucks shot a ridiculous 59% from long range.

And who has been the primary beneficiary of this change in philosophy? Guys like Keith Bogans, who had a strong game against Philadelphia before regressing to the mean as the starter these last two days with an aggregate minus-26. I’m sorry, but although Bogans hasn’t been bricking as many attempts as he did earlier in the season, he is not respected enough around the League as a three-point threat to offset the damage that has been done in other areas.

Humphries is still “day-to-day” for Friday’s home game versus Charlotte, but he wasn’t even called on to play against Philly prior to his injury. Evans, who at one time embodied Brooklyn’s new attitude, has seen his minutes cut drastically in the last four games. It’s not a coincidence that the Nets have gone soft in this period.

So thanks, coach Johnson, for bringing back the ghosts of Nets’ seasons past during the holidays. Keep it up, and your small ball lineup will also soon serve as a parting gift.

What do you think the Nets need to do to get back to dominating their opponents? Share your thoughts below. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.


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