By Steve Lichtenstein
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How pumped is ESPN to showcase next Wednesday’s Nets game at Atlanta to the entire nation, huh?
Like their cross-river rivals from Manhattan, the Nets are not anywhere near ready to perform for prime-time audiences, as indicated by Thursday’s horrific 123-84 loss to the Clippers on TNT. I speak for not just Nets fans but basketball fans everywhere when I implore the networks to blacklist Brooklyn from national TV for the rest of this season.
The Nets, who at one point in the third quarter trailed by 45 points, are not just a bad team.
They’ve become unwatchable.
It was hardly inconceivable that they lost to a tough Western Conference contender on the tail end of a road back-to-back. However, the least they could do for the benefit of those who root for them was to compete. That’s why it was so disheartening to see them play like they couldn’t care less.
They couldn’t shoot, defend or rebound. Brooklyn’s offensive possessions would typically end with forced shots and then the Clippers would routinely beat them down the floor for easy transition baskets. Los Angeles had 17 fast break points by halftime.
On the off chance the Clippers did miss a shot in the first half, they retrieved the ball off the offensive glass about half the time. They should give special thanks to Nets center Brook Lopez, who lost three balls off his fingertips in the game’s first few minutes.
Lopez allegedly had been the target of several teams in various trade proposals over the last few weeks, but Nets general manager Billy King opted not to close any deal–presumably because of the Nets’ standing among their Eastern Conference peers. Even with nine losses in their last 11 games, Brooklyn, at 18-25, somehow remains in the eighth playoff slot, albeit tenuously (they hold a tiebreaker edge over Charlotte and are just one game up on red-hot Detroit).
Too bad. Lopez epitomizes everything that’s gone wrong with the franchise since the move from New Jersey three summers ago.
The excessively-compensated contract. The durability issues. The lack of inner fire to get after every 50-50 ball. The preference for awkward isolations in lieu of team-first ball movement.
Those heavy doses of isolations are what makes this team impossible to enjoy for those who revere the sport at its highest level. They inevitably lead to poor decisions on shot selections. Thursday’s loss was hardly an aberration from an offensive standpoint. As coach Lionel Hollins once said, the Nets do have an identity—they’re a team that doesn’t make shots.
Sure, every now and then the Nets will shoot the lights out, like in the first half on Wednesday night in Sacramento. But on most nights, their offensive production is malodorous. They rank fifth from the bottom in points per 100 possessions and are dead last in three-point shooting percentage in January, per NBA.com.
Who wants to watch a team that not only struggles to score, but also often turns the ball over at alarming rates? Other than center Mason Plumlee, there’s no one on the Nets who wows you with their athleticism. It’s the opposite of fan-tastic.
It’s been a remarkable plunge from the heights of the media hype that accompanied the Nets’ many roster moves leading up to last season. They boasted six players with All Star honors on their resumes. Future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were acquired to bring championship gravitas. With Jay-Z on board, the Nets were the “it” team.
Now they’re a different kind of “It.” Like in a game of hide-and-seek, they’re the team national TV executives should run away from.
Those who blame Hollins for this mess (I was so ready to post a profanity-laced vent on this site had the Nets blown their big lead in Sacramento using that godforsaken small-ball lineup down the stretch of the fourth quarter, but the Nets held on) should look at what he has to work with and wonder who could do any better. As I’ve written many times, this is mostly King’s fault.
The shooting guard position has been pretty much vacant all season–thanks to King overrating Bojan Bogdanovich’s ability to translate his game from Europe into the NBA as a rookie.
The Nets’ bench, except for the odd games Lopez breaks out, gives Hollins little in the way of playmaking. The once sweet stroke of Mirza Teletovic, who left Thursday’s game due to shortness of breath and later tweeted that “everything is OK,” must be in a lost-and-found in some other arena.
You can argue that a considerable explanation for the Nets’ recent demise could come from the rib injury suffered by Deron Williams in a loss at Miami at the beginning of the month. Williams may be shooting almost 39 percent from three-point range, but let’s also remember that he had lost his starting role to Jarrett Jack in mid-December and had not exceeded 30 minutes in any game since December 17. He’s no longer 1B to the Clippers Chris Paul’s 1A among the league’s point guards—he’s more like number 16.
With Williams out, however, Jack and Joe Johnson have been beaten down by heavy minutes. As one would expect, their offensive efficiencies have taken quite a hit this month. The duo combined to score just 16 points on 7-for-23 shooting from the floor on Thursday.
Unfortunately, Williams will definitely not be ready to play in the Nets’ finale of their three-game road trip in Utah on Saturday and could be out longer after the Nets reported that he is still feeling some pain in the area.
It wouldn’t be wrong to look at the Utah game–as well as Monday’s home game versus a Portland squad missing LaMarcus Aldridge–as must-wins for Brooklyn. That is, if you still envision this team making the playoffs.
To be a contrarian, I don’t think we’ve seen the Nets hit rock bottom. Evidently there are still layers below the consecutive home losses to Boston and Philadelphia two weeks ago. This Clippers loss was a major embarrassment.
I suspect the worst is yet to come. The Nets’ schedule for the ensuing 30 days has them on the road for 10 of their 14 games, with 10 of the 14 opponents currently holding a postseason seeding.
It all starts with that game at the conference-leading Hawks. Couldn’t ESPN flex it out? There are quite a few more desirable matchups that night.
At least the YES network broadcast won’t be blacked out–Ian Eagle’s announcing genius is one of the few pleasures Nets fans have left this season.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.