By Steve Lichtenstein
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In one night, the Nets undid all those feel-good stories from their modest two-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break. Looking back, should I have known that I was asking too much of Brooklyn to escape New Orleans with a victory on Wednesday, considering that the Pelicans were playing without three of their top four scorers—including MVP candidate Anthony Davis?
Indeed I must have been.
It was one of those nights that made me want to throw the remote through the TV screen. Marquee names such as Quincy Pondexter, Dante Cunningham, Luke Babbitt and the immortal Alexis Ajinca made mincemeat out of Brooklyn’s defense and then Tyreke Evans took over down the stretch to send the Nets down to defeat, 102-96.
The loss was compounded by the fact that several of the Nets’ rivals for the final playoff berths in the Eastern Conference gained additional ground by winning their respective games. Brooklyn is now tied with Charlotte for the eighth seed, but Detroit, Indiana and Boston are all just a game back.
It was a hellish 48 hours for Nets fans following Brooklyn’s rout over Denver on Monday. First, we were all stunned to learn that the man we thought would fill Brooklyn’s open roster spot—power forward Thomas Robinson—was claimed on waivers at the last minute by the tanking 76ers.
And now, instead of heading into an extremely difficult back-to-back at Houston and Dallas over the weekend with a formula for their success, the Nets and coach Lionel Hollins have to go back to the drawing board.
Yes, the Nets have gotten more athletic by swapping Kevin Garnett for Thaddeus Young and giving major minutes to high-flying rookie Markel Brown. However, this game showed that the same areas that have killed the Nets all season will continue to haunt them whenever they’re asked to step up in level.
Pick-and-roll defense. Defending the three-point line. The isolation-heavy attack plan. Inconsistent three-point shooting.
At least they weren’t dominated on the boards on Wednesday like they usually are. But the Nets still ended an awful lot of their defensive possessions by taking the ball out from their net. The Pelicans shot 51.4 percent from the floor, including 44 percent from three-point range. If not for 20 New Orleans turnovers, the result would have been a lot worse.
As mentioned in my last post, the Joe Johnson-as-power-forward strategy is a disaster-in-waiting. The Pelicans opened the game on a 15-6 run in the first eight minutes before Hollins inserted Young. Amazingly, the Nets then found it easier to attack the paint and were only down three points at halftime.
But where was Cory Jefferson, another uber-athlete who sparked the Nets in Denver? His offensive skillset still needs thousands of hours of offseason work, but he would have been useful in addressing the Nets’ shoddy help defense. For some reason, however, Hollins tightened his rotation to eight on Wednesday and stapled Jefferson to the bench.
Of course, the Nets seemed to run out of gas and a tight game in the fourth quarter came undone in a four-minute span when the Nets couldn’t buy a bucket.
The Nets offense devolved into their familiar pound-the-rock-and-shoot-a-jump-shot. Brooklyn finished with just six assists on their 17 second-half made field goals and got nothing out of centers Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee.
Point guard Deron Williams, who looked so spry in the wins over the Lakers and Nuggets, reverted back to head-case D-Will. He was dreadful—missing 10 of his 14 shots, carelessly turning the ball over, and looking lost on defense.
Evans seemed to get into the paint at whim. To my surprise, he was more efficient at finding open looks for his teammates than he was at finishing at the rim. Still, Evans posted a full stat line of 15 points, 11 assists, four rebounds, two blocks, and a steal.
The return of Nets point guard Jarrett Jack from a two-game absence due to a hamstring injury was an improvement off the bench over Darius Morris, but Hollins still doesn’t get that Jack and Williams do not play well together. Neither has been shooting well enough from the perimeter to play off the ball, so they fight over who will be the facilitator on every possession. Per basketball-reference.com, the Nets had been outscored by 12.6 points per 100 possessions when Jack and D-Will have shared the floor prior to Wednesday.
Hollins force-fed the duo for 14 minutes against the Pelicans, analytics be damned. In the final three minutes during the Nets’ last-gasp possessions, Jack and Alan Anderson misfired on a bunch of quick three-point attempts when extra passes were available.
Even more stupefying was Hollins’ post-game reaction that the Nets “played well.” What game was he watching? He seemed satisfied with the Nets’ 33 percent three-point efficiency, calling it “the analytic average.” The actual league average is about 35 percent.
And it wasn’t bothersome to Hollins that the Nets have gotten down early in all three games of his “small-ball” experiment. “That’s just basketball,” said Hollins.
So is stomping on the teams you should beat. The outmanned teams. There’s not a whole lot of them left on the Nets’ plate. Fifteen of their final 27 opponents are over .500.
This was a game the Nets had to get. A playoff-less season is the worst possible outcome when Atlanta can swap 2015 first-round draft picks. Imagine Dominique Wilkens jumping out of his chair if the Hawks are awarded a top pick on lottery night—what a nightmare.
Unfortunately, if there’s one thing Nets fans are used to, it’s disappointment.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.