BROOKLYN – It’s hard to take much out of 48 minutes against a team that has now lost 17 straight games, so no grand conclusions will be drawn from the Brooklyn Nets’ 97-81 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday, their first game after the dismissal of head coach Avery Johnson.
Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo did his job, the players did theirs, and the Nets avoided the embarrassment of losing to an awful, awful team on their home floor. If the Nets’ didn’t win by double figures, there would really be something to talk about.
Until the third string allowed a 27-point, fourth-quarter lead to whittle down to 12, the Nets’ offense looked sharper than it had all December. But such a performance should be expected against the worst defense in the league, no matter who the coach is.
There were no real changes to the system and only a minor change to the rotation. There was a subtle difference in the Nets’ approach, however. Instead of walking the ball up the floor, Deron Williams looked to get it across the mid-court line as quickly as possible, even off made baskets. And that led to a more fluid and free-flowing offense.
The Nets ranked 29th in pace before Friday’s game, averaging a hair over 90 possessions per 48 minutes. Their offense was slow and deliberate, and they were too often taking too long to get to any kind of offensive action that could generate an double-team or an open shot.
All the isolations that Williams had issues with were ran were more out of necessity – in situations where the shot clock was running out and there were no other options – than design.
Even when the Nets ran Jerry Sloan’s “flex” offense that Johnson implemented to placate Williams after his pro-Sloan comments last week, it sometimes took too long before Williams could get the ball in position to make a play.
The Nets do have the personnel that can succeed at a slower pace. Brook Lopez can do work in the post and Joe Johnson can flourish in isolations or in the post as well. And really, this team is never going to play anything like the Houston Rockets.
But they can certainly play faster than they have thus far. And that can only make things easier on their offense.
So, in taking over for Johnson, Carlesimo told his team to get the ball up the floor quickly and keep the ball moving. In the brief time he had to work with them in the wake of Johnson’s dismissal, it was about all he could do to change things up. But it was a needed change and it worked … against the Bobcats.
“We would prefer to push the ball, because Deron is so good pushing it and creating,” Carlesimo said before his Nets coaching debut. “We’d like to push it and get it to Brook [Lopez] down low. We’d like to push it and get it ahead to Joe [Johnson] or [Gerald Wallace] or our other players.”
If the Nets are to turn around their season and get back to a top-four standing in the Eastern Conference, improvement has to start with Williams. Friday’s win was just one game, but Williams was indeed the key to an encouraging performance.
With the point guard pushing the tempo and aggressively looking for his shot, the Nets scored 33 points in the first quarter, their second-highest mark of the season. By halftime, Williams had 17 points himself, the most he’s had by halftime since last March.
“I just think I need to be aggressive,” Williams said afterward, “because I’m not playing well right now and I’m being too passive. And I don’t think that’s good for my team.”
In terms of possession count, Friday’s game wasn’t played at a much faster pace than a typical Nets game. But that was somewhat a product of the 24 possession-extending offensive rebounds that the two teams combined to grab. And it was clear that the Nets were getting into their offense a lot quicker than usual.
“We got a lot of easy baskets today,” Williams said. “The ball was moving today. It wasn’t one of those games like in the past where it was somebody’s turn and then somebody else’s turn. It was kind of moving out there.”
It wasn’t exactly a breakthrough performance (have we mentioned the Nets were playing the Bobcats?), but it was a step forward, for both the team and its star.
“He made his shots, which is great,” Carlesimo said of Williams. “But I thought he pushed it for us. He got us up the floor. He got us into things.
“I thought he played an excellent game. He really did.”
“This was one game, and a game we figured we should win,” Williams added. “We have to come ready to play tomorrow. That will be the test.”
Well, not really. On Saturday, the Nets play the Cleveland Cavaliers, the only team in the league that ranks in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. After that though, they visit San Antonio on Monday and Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
Though those teams will test the Nets’ regressing defense more than their regressing offense, it’s all tied together, because it’s easier to push the ball up the floor when you’re not taking it out of the basket.