NEW YORK — December has not been kind to the Brooklyn Nets.
When the month started, the Nets were 11-4, they ranked 11th in defensive efficiency and Avery Johnson was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month. Less than three weeks later, the Nets are 13-12, they rank as one of the three worst defensive teams in the month, they just got thrashed by the New York Knicks, and Johnson’s seat might be getting a little warm.
Just two days ago, Johnson’s star point guard Deron Williams publicly pined for the “flex” offense he ran in Utah. The Nets actually rank in the top 10, offensively, but they’re clearly not getting the most of their high-priced talent.
Williams is shooting less than 40 percent from the field and less than 30 percent from 3-point range. Joe Johnson has recovered somewhat from a slow start, but he’s mostly doing his own work to get his shots. Gerald Wallace is too often a spot-up shooter instead of a cutter, and Brook Lopez isn’t seeing the paint as much as he did before he injured his foot.
“I don’t have something I can really put my finger on,” Williams said of the team’s offensive struggles on Wednesday. “I guess it’s still a learning curve. We’re still learning to play with each other, still trying to pick our spots.”
Even against the Knicks’ struggling defense on Wednesday, Brooklyn often took too long to get to any kind of action that would put New York at a disadvantage. On too many possessions, the ball wound up in Williams’ or Johnson’s hands with nothing to do but try to beat their man in isolation as the shot clock wound down. When they tried posting their big guards against their opponent’s smaller backcourt, the Knicks fronted the post and the Nets failed to do anything about it.
Two nights after the Houston Rockets scorched the Knicks by playing fast and aggressive, the Nets played slow and deliberate.
Still, the Nets managed to score more than a point per possession (86/83) on Wednesday. Yes, their offense could be better. Much better. But their defense couldn’t be much worse.
The Knicks tore that defense apart on Wednesday, scoring 100 points on 83 possessions. Carmelo Anthony was barely bothered by Wallace, scoring 31 points on 22 shots. Raymond Felton kept running high pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler because the Nets couldn’t stop it.
“We have a game plan that we tried to execute tonight on the defensive end, and it just wasn’t working,” Williams said afterward. “We weren’t doing the things that we needed to. We weren’t getting the help in the right spots, our rotations were slow, we let guys drive right to the basket without any help. And that’s not how we want to play.”
The Nets were so flustered, Johnson started doubling Anthony as soon as he crossed the mid-court line — the ultimate sign of defensive desperation.
“Defensively, tonight, is where we lost the game,” Williams admitted. “Our offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders, but we didn’t get enough stops.”
Offense. Defense. The Nets’ lost their way when Lopez got hurt on Nov. 28, and they haven’t been able to get back to where they were when they were beating the Clippers, Knicks and Celtics on a five-game winning streak that had them playing for first place in the Eastern Conference just 18 days ago.
“It seemed like we were rolling pretty well and we just kind of hit a snag,” Williams said. “And we can’t figure out how to get it back — get our confidence back as a group. We’re looking to do that.”
Williams isn’t going to put the onus on Avery Johnson to right the ship though.
“It’s on us,” he said. “It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s us as players. We’ve got to come out with more energy and more focus. It’s like we lost a little bit of our toughness. So we’ve got to get that back.”
Yes, the coach needs to get more creative with his offense. But the Nets’ issues are about more than just Xs and Os. Defense especially is about effort and focus.
“Our fight, our energy, our intensity,” Williams said when asked what needs to improve. “Just how we come out and approach the game, I think, as a group. We have to come out a lot more focused mentally, just ready to compete for 48 minutes; not 24 minutes, not 36 minutes, [but] for a full 48 minutes.”