HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – When Nets coach Avery Johnson was gushing about his team’s London excursion and how important it was for them to get that unique time away from their normal surroundings, it would have been easy to assume it was just a coach trying to say all the right things for the benefit of his audience.
But Johnson wasn’t just putting on a show for those of us media members in attendance. He was serious about the opportunity that historic trip to London — for two “home” games against the Toronto Raptors at 02 Arena, the first NBA regular-season games played on European soil — provided his new-look team. All-Star point guard Deron Williams was just days into his tenure with the Nets after coming over in a deal with the Jazz at the trade deadline.
Something clicked for the Nets over there, because they haven’t lost a game since that first win over the Raptors in London. They’ve rattled off five straight wins, including last night’s stunner over the Celtics in Newark.
There has even been mention of the playoffs (don’t laugh, the Nets have not been mathematically eliminated yet), chatter that would have seemed ridiculous weeks ago when the Nets were neck-deep in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes.
Now they’ve won five straight for the first time since January of 2008. Johnson was stoked to knock off the struggling Raptors in back-to-back games in London, the second a triple-overtime thriller that seemed like anything but a battle of teams with win totals in the teens. So you’d expect him to be fired up after guiding his team to a win over the mighty Celtics.
“The last couple of games, obviously, we beat two teams that were under .500 (Golden State and the L.A. Clippers),” Johnson told Colin Stephenson of the Star-Ledger. “But now you’ve got the team that’s basically the best team in the East coming in, and it’s exciting. I’m excited for our guys.”
Guys like Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, who along with Williams (who missed two games to be with his wife after the birth of their fourth child) have spearheaded the Nets’ recent surge.
Humphries has been a double-double machine, piling up seven straight after his 16-point, 15-rebound effort against Kevin Garnett and the Celtics. Humphries is averaging a staggering 16.8 points and 16.8 rebounds during the streak. Lopez, meanwhile, has been scoring as well as any center in the league during this stretch. He’s averaging 25.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.6 blocks during the streak.
Those good vibrations from London didn’t just infect the Nets. Things are looking good for British basketball these days as well. Great Britain became the second men’s and women’s teams to book their reservations for the 2012 London Olympics when FIBA announced Sunday that the host nation teams would indeed be granted automatic entry into the competition.
There was chatter during the London trip that the host teams, which will include NBA stars Luol Deng and Ben Gordon, would have to qualify in the European Championship to play on their own soil. Basketball is the only Olympic sports where the decision on whether or not the host nation competes without qualifying has to be approved by the world governing body.
Deng was as excited to know he and his national team teammates wouldn’t have to make the final of the European Championship to get in, telling BBC Sport:
“I’m really excited. We’re really happy to get it. We’ve been waiting for this decision for a while. We put in a lot of work to get to where we are. This is great for basketball back home. Basketball has been getting better and better and this is another step to where we want to get to.”
While I’m not suggesting the NBA’s London Games swayed anyone’s mind on the committee (the vote was 17-3 in favor of the teams from Great Britain getting the automatic entry bid), the success of both games couldn’t have hurt the cause.
The Lakers might be the hottest team in basketball. The Spurs have been without a doubt the best team over the course of the season so far. And no team brings the sizzle that the Heat can.
But there’s only one undefeated team in the month of March. And it all started on our trip to London …