By Steve Lichtenstein
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One tenet of NBA Game Theory posits that a team’s first game back at home after a long road trip often yields subpar performances.
Technically speaking, Brooklyn’s 110-108 victory over Golden State on Monday was at Barclays Center. But with so many fans in attendance rooting for the Warriors, maybe the Nets got confused about when their nearly month-long, eight-game tour concluded and waited for Wednesday’s game versus Charlotte to lay their egg.
In reality, there was no excuse for Brooklyn’s shameful effort against the Hornets in a 115-91 defeat that really wasn’t even that close.
After the wild win over the Warriors, Nets coach Lionel Hollins said, “We have to excite our crowd and get them to be Brooklyn Nets fans and not just opposing team fans.”
Well Lionel, you can point to games like Wednesday’s as one example as to why the Nets have yet to gain much of a foothold in the borough.
The Nets were well aware of the game’s importance coming in, with six teams—including the Hornets—fighting for two slots at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff ladder. The loss knocked Brooklyn down two places in the standings into 10th, a game behind Charlotte and a half-game in back of Indiana.
Once again, the Nets provided evidence that they’re a team that too often doesn’t have the gumption to get after it in tough games. From the opening tip, the Hornets were simply hungrier and quicker. A 29-8 run through much of the first quarter gave the Hornets a lead that the Nets could never cut into single digits.
Of course, Nets fans can always count on their Max Three to back down from a fight. Point guard Deron Williams and center Brook Lopez were abused by Mo Williams and Al Jefferson, respectively. D-Will shot only 3-for-9 from the floor while offering little resistance to Williams, who got wherever he wanted to on the floor and produced a double-double of 14 points and 14 assists. Lopez’s defense was a joke—he couldn’t even be bothered with getting his hands up to contest Big Al’s field goal attempts—and he was even softer on the offensive end, short-arming five of his seven shots.
And Joe Johnson… wait, did Johnson even suit up? (The box score credited Johnson with two points on 1-for-6 shooting from the floor.)
Then again, who on the Nets played well? Mason Plumlee–the starting center in name only–finished with a decent stat line of 11 points and seven rebounds, but he was almost as dreadful as Lopez was on the defensive end. Bojan Bogdanovich also posted 11 points, but he missed all three of his wide-open three-pointers that in each instance halted what little momentum Brooklyn could generate.
The bloom wore off Markel Brown’s game a bit on Wednesday. Like most Nets fans, I love Brown’s athleticism and defensive intensity. However, if teams are going to keep leaving him unattended on the perimeter, he’s going to have to work at the art of knocking shots down from there. Even Charlotte’s uber-defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist figured out that he wasn’t going to be long for this game if he couldn’t develop a more consistent jump shot.
At least Brown and Thaddeus Young showed glimpses of hustle. That’s more than I could say for their teammates.
There were countless loose balls that the Nets didn’t deign to grab. Help defense seemed to be a voluntary activity. The Hornets, hardly a rebounding juggernaut, had nearly twice as many first-half boards as the Nets.
The Nets never seem to get it. Any hint of prosperity gets tossed to the gutter in short order. Their wins over the Warriors—who were on their fifth game in seven nights—and the Tyson Chandler/Chandler Parsons-less Mavericks didn’t mean a thing in the big picture. Like an investment, past performance did not guarantee positive future returns.
They needed to maintain their effort. To paraphrase former U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, the Nets do not have enough talent to win on talent alone.
It also means they have to be coached better. I’ve given Hollins a bit of a pass this season because he was put at the mercy of an ill-conceived roster by general manager Billy King. But Hollins’ stubbornness is getting in the way of the Nets’ progress.
For instance, we all know by now that Williams and Jarrett Jack make a bad pairing on the court. Even if you don’t believe the advanced metrics, the eye test should be equally sufficient.
There is a reason why the Nets had been outscored by 11.5 points per 100 possessions this season when Jack and D-Will share the floor. Both players are offensive facilitators, but Jack is really a prober whose main mission is to dribble down the shot clock until he can angle his body to get off a mid-range jumper. On the possessions where you ask Jack to play off the ball and let Williams create offense for others, Jack’s poor marksmanship from three-point territory becomes a drag. So your choices for a plan of attack become limited to stagnation or paint congestion.
Look, they each are fine players who help the Nets win games in their own ways. Just not together.
That didn’t stop Hollins from subbing in Jack for Brown halfway through the first quarter. In the ensuing 4:38, the Nets were outscored, 13-4.
I also can’t fathom why Hollins continues to experiment with Johnson at the “4.” Because they won their last two games?
The “if it ain’t broke” explanation is a copout. The Nets keep getting pounded on the glass when the undersized and grounded Johnson plays power forward. The only way the Nets can keep pace is if they go off from three-point land, which happens maybe once every four or five games.
Young has provided a spark nearly every time he enters a game. He’s a true forward who does an exponentially better job than Johnson at helping the helper on defense and securing the tougher rebounds. Plus, he’s been an efficient scorer—inside and outside–since coming to Brooklyn from Minnesota in the Kevin Garnett trade.
Young should be starting by now, which would allow Johnson to go back to his regular role on the wing.
Instead, Hollins didn’t get Young into the game until the Nets were down 31-10 with about two minutes left in the opening frame.
To be fair, Young was pretty much invisible in his long run to start the second half when the Nets deficit was a manageable 12 points. But he had company. D-Will, Lopez and Johnson combined to go 1-for-6 from the floor in the third quarter and Charlotte soon regained their 20-plus point margin.
In a long season, NBA teams are prone to stinkers. They could occur at the tail end of a dense schedule. They could be a side effect of an injury bug. Or maybe one team is vastly superior to the other.
In Wednesday’s case, it was none of the above. The Nets had a lot to play for, but they didn’t want it that bad. No further theorems are necessary.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.