By Steve Lichtenstein
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“It’s too late in the goddamn season to be playing like this.”
So said Nets center Kevin Garnett, and I tend to agree. All NBA teams have off nights, but few are as feckless as Brooklyn was Wednesday night in Portland during its 120-84 shellacking.
They happen for a variety of reasons:
There’s the schedule losses — you know, the third game in four nights or fifth in seven.
Except the Nets had two full days off after their solid 108-102 victory over the Lakers on Sunday. In fact, it was the Blazers who faced the back end of a back-to-back, having survived against the Nuggets on the road on Tuesday. The Nets are more likely to be the tired team Thursday night when they try to get their wind in the high altitude of Denver.
Then there are the tough-break games, when teams have key personnel out with fluke injuries, illnesses, suspensions, etc.
Again, it was Portland that entered the game with a depleted front line. All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was the most notable absence, but the Blazers also had to make do up front without backups Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland.
The Nets, meanwhile, were as whole as they’ve been all season, with the exception of center Brook Lopez, who was lost for the season back in December.
And sometimes a team just presents a bad matchup. The Nets have been bludgeoned all season by big, physical teams that pound them on the boards. They’re winless in 12 tries against Chicago, Indiana, Washington and Detroit — all of which rely on traditional power forward-center combinations that can score.
Well, I wouldn’t put Portland’s Robin Lopez and Dorell Wright in that company, yet the Blazers somehow outrebounded the Nets by an outlandish 53-29 margin. Portland’s 13 offensive boards produced 17 second-chance points.
The Nets even surrendered 13 points to someone named Victor Claver, who came into the game with a grand total of 7 points over three games played this season. Claver’s total surpassed the team-high 12 points posted by Nets point guard Deron Williams.
That’s pretty much all you need to know to understand how the Nets suffered their fourth-largest defeat in franchise history.
And though it only counted as one, it was not an insignificant one.
The Nets are in a dogfight at the bottom of the Eastern Conference postseason cutoff line. The loss dropped Brooklyn into a virtual tie with Charlotte for the sixth seed, just a game ahead of Atlanta and 4½ games over ninth-place Detroit. Ideally, any team would look to avoid Indiana and Miami in the first round, which means the Nets don’t have as much room for error as they think.
So how did this debacle happen?
The Nets produced many more of these clunkers during their wretched 10-21 start. Rookie coach Jason Kidd talked about “the process,” how it would take time for all the new roster pieces to gel.
Outside of the Nets’ 10-1 run to begin calendar 2014, we’re still waiting.
The trust issues that derailed Brooklyn on both sides of the court have been creeping back. Players are pointing fingers over things like rotation help defense and where they’re supposed to be on offense.
Center Andray Blatche had a particularly rough night, handling the ball like a hot potato and giving what could generously be called an indifferent effort on defense.
General manager Billy King used the word “toughness” last summer when he outlined his reasoning for the wholesale changes, from the megadeal that brought over Garnett and Paul Pierce to the hiring of Kidd.
Yet this is a team that often quits mid-game. Kidd, who pulled the plug on his regulars halfway through the third quarter, mentioned in his postgame comments that the Nets still seem to “get down” when they don’t make shots and let it affect their defense. How tough is that?
It comes down to structure. Teams like the Spurs and the Bulls can thrive no matter the score or who is on the court because the players believe in the system.
The Nets have no such faith in Kidd. He was deservedly credited for shaking up the rotation after the New Year by replacing the traditional power forward with the smaller Pierce, but the Nets are just 6-7 since that initial surge.
Further adjustments are obviously needed. Kidd continues to start Shaun Livingston over the more deserving Andrei Kirilenko, who was healthy enough to log 67 minutes in back-to-back games over the weekend while Livingston was sidelined. Maybe Kidd was honoring Livingston’s dedicated work in rehabilitating his knee on the seventh anniversary of the freak fall that nearly destroyed Livingston’s career.
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kidd, who seems to coach by feel and superstition, go back to Livingston on Thursday despite the calamity it caused in Portland when he picked up three fouls in five minutes. That forced the Nets to play without a point guard when Williams rested.
Fortunately, it looks like the Nets will catch another break as electric Denver point guard Ty Lawson is unlikely to return to action from a rib injury. The Nuggets have been struggling recently, losing eight of their last nine games.
Then again, the Nets have been less than mighty in back-to-backs on the road and who knows if Garnett’s 14 minutes in Portland will require another rest night.
It shouldn’t matter. I don’t want to hear any more excuses. I’m tired of all the submissions. It’s time for the Nets to consistently put forth the effort that could turn them into a difficult team to play in the postseason or else risk being labeled an all-time boondoggle.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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