Posts Tagged ‘Gerald Wallace’

Nets Have Much On The Line In Game 7

BROOKLYN – After a brutal loss in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Chicago Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets have fought their way back and earned a Game 7 on their home floor on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

Game 7s are always huge for both teams, but these 48 minutes will absolutely define the Nets’ season. It will be the difference between accomplishment and disappointment.

The guys Tom Thibodeau puts on the floor will fight for every possession, but the Bulls basically punted this season with the moves they made (or didn’t make) last summer. Their star player hasn’t played a single minute and four more key players are far less than 100 percent. If they lose, we understand that they were undermanned and they retool for next season. They’ve already established a culture of defense, toughness and resilience, which will be there as long as Thibodeau is on the bench.

The Nets, however, haven’t established anything other than a willingness to spend money. There’s a lot of culture outside the Barclays Center, but not necessarily in the locker room.

But if the Nets win Game 7, they’ve at least established themselves as a top-four team in the Eastern Conference and put themselves in a conference semifinals matchup with the juggernaut Miami Heat, where no one will expect them to win more than a game. They will have proven that they too have some resilience, becoming only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit.

If the Nets lose, what are they? They’re a team that didn’t come close to making the most of their talent and lost to a depleted team held together by gauze tape.

Derrick Rose and Luol Deng are not playing. Kirk Hinrich probably isn’t playing either. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are banged up and Nate Robinson was throwing up on the bench on Thursday. No, the Nets aren’t 100 percent, but their issues are nothing compared to those of Chicago’s M.A.S.H unit.

So Game 7 is truly a referendum on all things Nets. Here’s who has a lot on the line Saturday:

Billy King: The Nets general manager got his contract extension, but still has a lot of work to do if he wants to turn this team into a true contender. Brooklyn was the league’s most improved team this season, because King spent a lot of Mikhail Prokhorov‘s money.

But $139 million of that money is going to Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, who are both on the wrong side of 30 and who both had disappointing seasons. There’s spending money, and there’s spending money wisely.

A playoff victory doesn’t necessarily validate the trades that brought Johnson and Wallace here, but the Nets aren’t necessarily done putting this team together either. A series win is something to build on and maybe something to help convince veteran free agents (and/or a great coach) that this is the place to be.

The Nets’ defense: The Bulls are a pretty bad offensive team. They ranked 24th on that end of the floor in the regular season, and that was with some of their players healthier than they are now. But they’ve been able to hang with the Nets in this series, in part because the Brooklyn defense has been rather porous, especially when trying to stop Chicago’s pick-and-roll attack.

Chicago basically has two guys who can beat you: Carlos Boozer and Robinson. And Robinson is just as likely to shoot the Bulls out of a game as he is to shoot them into one. If the Nets can’t stop these guys, they’ve got a lot of ‘splaining to do.

Deron Williams: Williams has silenced his critics, playing much better over the last 2 1/2 months and making it clear that his early-season struggles were injury-related. But if he’s truly back to being an elite point guard, he has to prove it on Saturday. He has got to be aggressive offensively, get his team to move the ball, and put it on himself to stay in front of Robinson defensively.

Talent has never been a question with Williams. Leadership, however, has. To win a Game 7 against a resilient opponent, the Nets will need a leader on the floor.

Brook Lopez: Returning from two foot injuries suffered last season, Lopez has established himself as an All-Star and the best offensive center in the league. Just as important, he has taken a step forward defensively.

Lopez has been the best player in this series, but has struggled in the second half of some of these games. He has shot 8-for-24 in the third quarter, in which the Nets have struggled most of the series (and most of the season too).

In fact, in the second half of 10 total games against the Bulls this season, Lopez has shot just 28-for-70 (40 percent). The final regular season meeting ended with Lopez turning the ball over, getting blocked by Nazr Mohammed, and missing a jumper to tie at the buzzer, allowing the Bulls to escape with a two-point victory.

It’s one thing to be an All-Star. It’s another to be a guy your team can count on to get you big buckets in a do-or-die situation. And even before we get to the closing moments of Game 7, Lopez’s pick-and-roll defense will also be in the spotlight.

P.J. Carlesimo: It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Nets’ interim coach won’t be asked to return this summer, and he probably won’t receive much credit if the Nets win this series. But he’ll clearly get much of the blame if they lose, because it’s supposed to be the coach’s job to make the most of his team’s talent.

This team hasn’t done that. The offense has been inconsistent and the defense has been mediocre, at best. Reserves MarShon Brooks and Mirza Teletovic, who could possibly have contributed more (and helped space the floor), failed to develop.

Carlesimo wasn’t put in an easy position, of course. He was handed a team that had lost 10 of its last 13 games in late December. He deserves credit for righting the ship and getting the Nets’ best players playing better. That probably won’t save his job though.

In this series, Carlesimo has been slow to adjust. His starting lineup has struggled offensively, but has played the most minutes (119) of any lineup in the postseason (no other Nets lineup has played more than 13 minutes). He has navigated his team through two elimination-game victories, but has one more to go and can’t let a bad lineup stay on the floor for too long.

Misfiring Offensively, Nets Turn To Defense, Force Game 7

a

a
CHICAGO
– For 130 of the final 139 seconds of Game 6 Thursday at United Center, the Brooklyn Nets never could put the Chicago Bulls more than three points back in the rear-view mirror. There were repeated opportunities for the Bulls to tie or take the lead, plenty of chances for the Nets to slip up or let up on the road, in a noisy gym, their postseason survival on the brink.

Offensively, they were melting down. They shot 4-of-19 in the third quarter, 6-of-17 in the fourth. And still, Chicago never could catch them. The Nets led by six at halftime and won by three, 95-92. Three times the Bulls got as close as one point. And that was it.

Brooklyn’s defense earned them their Game 7 shot Saturday night. So many weapons offensively, so much hand-to-hand combat when those weapons misfired (Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams combined for 12 points in the second half.)

“The first half we didn’t play any defense,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “The second half we didn’t have any offense. … It was a heckuva win but it wasn’t Xs & Os, anything like that. It was two teams played real hard and our guys found a way to win.”

The Nets zinged Chicago for 60 points through the game’s first 24 minutes. That earned them a little cushion over the next 24, but not enough to absolve their shooting and scoring woes.

So when they shot 21.1 percent in the third, they made sure Chicago did no better than 27.3. When they burped along at 35.7 percent in the fourth, they saw to it that the Bulls were even worse at 32.1.

And while it stung to miss five of their 11 free throws in that final quarter, it wasn’t fatal because Chicago only shot two. All that defending, so little fouling (2 in the period).

“Be physical with ‘em. Get ‘em off their spots. [Carlos] Boozer‘s good, those guys are good getting to their spots and getting comfortable,” forward Gerald Wallace said, sharing from Brooklyn’s “book” on the Bulls. “The main thing is, we’re playing 48 minutes. We’re not dropping our heads when our shots not falling. We’re keeping the defensive pressure up on ‘em. These last two games, we’ve relied on our defense a lot more.’

Set aside the bloated  numbers from Game 4, the Bulls’ 142 points and 53.2 percent shooting in triple-overtime, and Brooklyn’s defensive prowess has been good. The Nets have held the Bulls to 88.2 points, on average, in the other five games and 44.8 percent shooting.

They learned their lesson against Nate Robinson, too. Since his Nate being Nate-ness in Game 4 — 34 points off the bench, all but five from the fourth quarter on, Robinson has been contained by Brooklyn’s guards and help up front. He scored a combined 38 points on 16-of-34 shooting in Games 5 and 6 but he hasn’t spent more than a few brief stretches in takeover mode.

The Nets’ defensive focus on Robinson? Forward Reggie Evans smiled at the question.

“We ain’t focusin’ like that,” Evans said. “You know what I’m saying? Nate’s a good player but he ain’t a focus to the point where you’re like … if you asked me what’s our focus against Derrick Rose, it’s something different. You’re talking about an MVP player.

“We’re talking about Nate Robinson — he had a good game [in Game 4]. No disrespect to him because he’s a good player but, c’mon, they’ve got Luol Deng who’s an All-Star. [Joakim] Noah who’s an All-Star. Boozer, who’s a former All-Star. So don’t you think they’d be a little more of a bigger focus?”

Actually, the Bulls did not have Deng Thursday — he was sent home sick, and reportedly had a detour to a local hospital in the 24 hours prior to Game 6. Robinson was sick too — visibly at one point, in a towel-and-bucket way — as was forward Taj Gibson. Gibson showed the worst effects, fouling out after just 17:46 of raggedy play. And the Bulls’ 16 turnovers, many unforced, made Brooklyn’s defense look peskier than it truly was.

So was Chicago easier to guard, without Deng, without point guard Kirk Hinrich (bruised left calf), without that Rose guy? Sure. But a Nets club that often lapses into the bad habit of trying to outscore the other guys went the other way Thursday. They have looked capable of doing both when the games are at Barclays Center, so Brooklyn seems set up nicely for Game 7.

“Beating ‘em to the punch,” Evans said of the Nets’ tactics vs. Chicago. “Rebounding the ball whenever they miss it. Understanding the tendencies of each individual player and trying to make that come together as a unit. Once things get to clicking, and everybody communicating, good things happen.

“It was a grind game for both of us. No matter how you shoot, that don’t determine your defense. Like they say, offense sells tickets and defense wins games for you. So when you don’t got it going, that don’t mean you don’t got to play defense.”

Remembering that is big. Doing it is bigger. Doing it in a Game 7 to earn an Eastern Conference semifinals series against the NBA’s defending champions, that would be biggest of all, so deep into Brooklyn’s special season.

Disqualification Rule Turns Foul In Drama Of Playoffs Overtime

.

CHICAGO – The last time the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls stepped on the United Center court, amazing didn’t just happen, it took off its jacket and stayed a while. For 63 minutes, to be exact, in the Bulls’ 142-134 triple-overtime thriller that ranks among the most memorable of these or any other year’s playoffs. As Nate Robinson, Gerald Wallace, Joakim Noah and the rest pushed the drama to nearly four hours, those fortunate to be sitting courtside marveled at their drive and stamina …

… Except of course for Robinson, Wallace, Noah, Taj Gibson and Reggie Evans, all of whom got planted in courtside chairs before the outcome was determined. Each had fouled out at some point in overtime, and as they went, the balance of power shifted, from the Nets to the Bulls and back again in what was becoming a war of attrition rather than clutch moments or highlight plays.

Ultimately, let’s be honest, the power resided with the referees, whose determination on foul and no-foul calls became increasingly important. Brooklyn had to finish without its starting forwards. Chicago, already shorthanded, had to rely on its ninth- and 10th-men at the game’s most pivotal point. Even if that somehow added to the drama — oh, those 51 seconds of Nazr Mohammed in the third OT! — it hardly seemed like the true measure of the two teams.

And why? Because of the NBA’s disqualification rule.

Six fouls and you’re gone. Isn’t that wonderful when a fan has spent tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars on tickets to a big game? One or more of his team’s brightest stars winds up playing limited minutes and missing the biggest moments because the rule doesn’t allow any leeway for a game that stretches 63 minutes than it does for one of 48.

That’s just the most elemental problem for overtime games. There also is the disparity in how and when fouls are assessed. Playoff basketball is said to be more physical, so presumably what might have been a foul from November through March suddenly isn’t in April and May. Oh really?

We also know that some stars (usually theirs) never foul out and rarely come close while others (yours) aren’t accorded such status.

So what can be done to avoid such situations in the future, where a championship might be determined by somebody’s sixth foul and disqualification in a Game 7? Or, more insidiously, in some pivotal game of an earlier round that swings that series?

The NBA’s competition committee needs to look hard at the disqualification rules, with these possible tweaks:

  • When a game goes into overtime, every player who hasn’t already fouled out should be permitted one extra foul, bumping the max to seven. We give coaches extra timeouts in OT already. Going to seven fouls would be about right, proportionally, for a game of 53 minutes compared to six fouls in 48.
  • With the start of a second overtime, continuing until completion, a foul committed by a player who already has six fouls would not trigger his disqualification. Instead, the player would be allowed to stay in the game but his team would be assessed an extra penalty. A technical foul in addition to whatever free throws stemmed from the personal foul, for example. Or possession of the ball after the original free throws. It would be up to the coach to decide if the player’s continued services – and ability to play without fouling – were worth the risk of free points for the opposition.

No one wants to turn an NBA game into a hack-fest like the summer leagues, where the maximum for fouls either is bloated (10 in Las Vegas) or ignored entirely. Thus, the bonus penalties.

Still, there would be an added benefit to boosting the count: the referees would have slightly less impact on the outcome, compared to those games in which one or more of a team’s players is disqualified by fouls. That would thin the herd of conspiracy theories that emerge at this time of year.

Obviously, nothing is going to change this spring. But it’s worth considering over the summer.

Nets Do It All Offensively To Stay Alive

a

a
BROOKLYN –
When you score 110 points in a slow-paced playoff game against a top-five defense, you’re doing a lot of things right. And the Brooklyn Nets did a lot right in their 110-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Monday, avoiding elimination and sending this first round series back to Chicago for Game 6 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

There are four factors when it comes to scoring efficiency: Shooting from the field, turnovers, free throws, and offensive rebounds.

The Nets shot 50 percent from the field and 6-for-17 from 3-point range. Check.

The Nets committed just 11 turnovers, zero in the fourth quarter. Check.

The Nets got to the line 23 times and connected on 20 of the 23 attempts. Check.

The Nets grabbed 17 offensive rebounds and turned them into 24 second-chance points. Check.

All those checks enabled the Nets to survive a gut-check. They rebounded (literally and figuratively) from Saturday’s heartbreaking loss in Game 4, answered some questions about their heart and resilience, and put themselves in position to bring this series back to Brooklyn for Game 7 on Saturday.

And don’t let the final score fool you. The game was very much up for grabs late in the game. After leading by as many as 10 points in the third quarter, the Nets were up just one after Jimmy Butler began the fourth with a 3-pointer. They were still up only five with a little over four minutes to go.

At that point, any observer still had Saturday’s collapse – a 14-point lead gone in less than three minutes – fresh in their mind. But this was a different night, one in which the Bulls couldn’t stop the Nets, who didn’t go more than two straight possessions without a score over the final 32 minutes.

“The difference tonight was that we were able to sustain it for essentially a full 48 minutes,” Brook Lopez said afterward. “We really came together as a team, played through the entire shot clock, and turned our good looks into great looks.”

Brooklyn scored at least 25 points in each quarter and went off for 33 over the final 12 minutes. And they got critical contributions from everywhere.

Deron Williams clearly knew he could take advantage of the absence of Kirk Hinrich and a mismatch with Nate Robinson. He pushed the ball down the floor, got the Nets into their offense early, and took Robinson into the paint, totaling 23 points and 10 assists.

Lopez took advantage of the Bulls’ heavy strong-side defense by flashing from the weak side and attacking the basket. He shot 10-for-14 in the paint and registered 28 points and 10 rebounds.

Andray Blatche was good Andray Blatche on this particular night, mostly staying in control and scoring 10 of his 13 points in the critical fourth quarter. The Lopez-Blatche combo was a plus-14 in eight minutes on Monday and is now a plus-38 for the series.

And the much maligned Gerald Wallace came up huge in the final minutes, opening the game up with a sequence in which he drained a corner three, stole a Nate Robinson pass, and turned it into a breakaway dunk on the other end.

This is who the Nets can be. They ranked ninth in offensive efficiency this season, but have the personnel to be a top-five team on that end of the floor. They have three guys – Williams, Lopez and Joe Johnson – they can run their offense through. With Hinrich out and Joakim Noah still somewhat hindered by plantar fasciitis, they have distinct matchup advantages. And with the Bulls so limited offensively, they have plenty of opportunities to run the floor. They registered 21 fast break points on Monday.

It’s just a matter of energy and execution, keeping the ball and the players moving. If you have the talent, there are ways to beat the Bulls’ defense. The Nets have now played well offensively in three of the five games in this series.

“I believed we would respond,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “As disheartening a loss as Saturday was, there have still been enough good minutes in this series.”

Indeed. Though they’re down 3-2, the Nets have now outscored the Bulls by 17 points over the five games. If they can keep that point differential moving in their favor on Thursday, they’ll have a Game 7 on their home floor, and Saturday’s collapse will be long forgotten.

Nets Extend King, Who Has More Work To Do

BOSTON – The Brooklyn Nets announced Friday that they’ve signed general manager Billy King to a contract extension. NetsDaily reports that the deal is for three years.

The timing is interesting, given how anemic the roster King has assembled has looked in its last two games against the Chicago Bulls. But Brooklyn was the most improved team in the league this season, and in his time with the Nets, King has turned Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow and Travis Outlaw into Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace.

Most improved teams, 2011-12 to 2012-13, NetRtg

Team OffRtg Rk DefRtg Rk NetRtg
Brooklyn +5.3 4 -3.4 3 +8.7
Charlotte +6.0 3 +1.2 14 +4.8
Golden State +1.2 16 -3.5 2 +4.6
L.A. Clippers +2.5 12 -2.0 5 +4.5
Oklahoma City +3.0 9 -0.8 9 +3.8

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

The problem is that King gave up a Lottery pick for Wallace, who has really regressed this season and is owed over $30 million over the next three years. And he’s the fifth-highest paid player on the team. Given the restrictions of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Nets are mostly stuck with the roster they have, a roster that had no major injuries this season and finished fourth in the weaker conference.

They do hope that they have one card to play: trading Kris Humphries‘ contract (which expires next season) to upgrade one of the forward positions. In one of King’s more interesting moves last summer, Humphries was essentially re-signed to be traded. The Nets didn’t necessarily want to bring the power forward back, but if they let him go, they didn’t have the cap space to replace him with anything but a minimum-salary player. Re-signing Humphries gave them the opportunity to eventually deal him for someone who makes similar money, but they might not have the add-ins (young players with potential or potentially high draft picks) to entice another team to trade them a real difference maker.

A(nother) coaching change could also make a difference. Multiple reports indicate that interim coach P.J. Carlesimo probably won’t be retained at the end of the Nets’ playoff run. Carlesimo has stuck with vanilla lineups despite his team’s struggles against quality opponents, and the Nets could move up a couple of spots both offensively and defensively next season with a little more innovation from the bench.

So while his roster is mostly set, King still has some work to do. He has to try to find a taker for Humphries, and he has to (likely) hire a new coach.

 

No ‘D’ In Brooklyn But Nets Get It Done

CHICAGO – Halfcourt basketball is a staple of the NBA playoffs. But with so much talk about Brooklyn’s offense and Chicago’s defense in the Nets-Bulls first-round Eastern Conference series, some might assume the teams actually are using just half a court, like a pickup game at some crowded playground.

The sad truth is, without Derrick Rose, the Bulls’ attack often is as entertaining as watching Dad re-grout the bathroom floor. As for the Nets’ defense, the voters spoke loud and clear: While 21 different players received votes for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award announced Wednesday, none of them play for the Nets.

The numbers suggest that while Brooklyn has improved its performance when the other guys control the ball, that wasn’t exactly a priority when GM Billy King went shopping prior to this season with another $330 million of owner Mikhail Prokhorov‘s money.

Statistically, the Nets brought defensive improvement along on their move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, just not any dramatic reimagining that way. In 2011-12, their defensive rating of 109.6 ranked 28th and they were 28th in opponents’ field-goal percentage, 29th in foes’ 3-point percentage, 19th in steals and dead last in defensive rebounds and blocked shots.

This season, the Nets got their defensive rating down to 106.2 and their ranking up to 17th. They ranked 23rd in opponents’ field-goal percentage, 21st in 3-point percentage, 19th in steals, 21st in defensive rebounds and 18th in blocks.

No less an authority than Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau sounded sufficiently impressed with what interim coach P.J. Carlesimo and, before him, Avery Johnson did starting in training camp.

“It starts with Brook Lopez,” Thibodeau said of Brooklyn’s All-Star center, known primarily as a dangerous scorer and occasional rebounder. “He’s gotten a lot better at challenging shots and blocking shots. [Forward Reggie] Evans has been an excellent defender. Gerald Wallace, every year you can make a case for him, all-league defense. I think P.J.’s done a great job with them, as did Avery, having a defensive philosophy.

“There’s been tremendous growth, I think, in the last two to three years. They have size, they have versatility. [Keith] Bogans, C.J. [Watson], I had both those guys here and they’re really terrific. [Veteran Jerry] Stackhouse is a little older now but he was a terrific defender for a long time and his team defense is very, very good. [Backup big man Andray] Blatche has very good feet.”

Yeah, Thibs, but are they any good when it comes to that five-guys-on-a-string stuff?

“They’ve got shot-blocking at the rim, they’ve got Wallace who can guard, they’ve got Johnson, who’s big,” Thibodeau said.

Like he was going to say anything different, right?

As for the DPOY award and Chicago placing three players – Joakim Noah (4), Luol Deng (15) and Jimmy Butler (T18) – among the 21 vote-getters, Thibodeau said he was proud of his players. But he also spoke of the multiple, sometimes contradictory factors that influence the balloting.

“I don’t know the metrics that are going into it,” said Thibodeau, whose work in Boston and Chicago since 2007 have led to greater defensive appreciation throughout the league. “I think it’s very difficult to measure the impact of a defensive guy. It’s not like a pitcher against a hitter in baseball and you can say, ‘This is what he’s doing.’ It’s five-man offense, five-man defense and a lot of variables that go into it: there’s rotations, there’s switches. Often a guy gets credit and maybe he wasn’t the person responsible.”

That, the Bulls coach said, is “why you could make a case for several guys who are on the same team.”

Or none on a middle-of-the-pack defensive team such as Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Peaks At Right Time, Based On Opener Vs. Bulls


.
BROOKLYN – The last postseason game played in this borough, the guys from Brooklyn didn’t even score (Johnny Kucks and the New York Yankees shut out the Dodgers 9-0 in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field).

So things already were looking up when Brook Lopez turned teammate Reggie Evans‘ offensive rebound into a layup 62 seconds into Game 1 of the Nets’ best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls Saturday night at Barclays Center.

The thing is, it only got better from there. Everything got better. The Nets’ offense purred under the direction of Deron Williams. The Brooklyn defense clamped down hard on a Bulls team with a reputation for clamping down (“I think we’re better,” Nets forward Gerald Wallace said).

Lopez played so well – 19 of his 21 points by halftime – that it might not have mattered if Chicago center Joakim Noah had had three good feet, never mind two. Brooklyn scored in the second quarter alone (35 points) what it took the Bulls a whole half to post and needed only three quarters to do (89 points) what took the visitors the entire game.

NBA playoff series are all about game-to-game adjustments, holding home court and never, ever getting out front of one’s self in excitement or assumptions. The Nets expect nothing less than a resurgence by Chicago’s players, properly chewed, spit out and told to do better by coach Tom Thibodeau.

Still, if a series opener could count double or at least set a tone for what’s likely to follow, this one would shoot to the front of the pack. This was one of the Nets’ most complete victories of their inaugural season at Barclays and it came precisely at the right time.

“Fresh start. New season. Playoffs are totally different,” said Wallace, who has seen performances by his squad similar to Saturday’s but only for partial credit.

“We’ve been doing that in the regular season against them but we’d give it away in the fourth quarter,” Wallace said, referring to Brooklyn’s 1-3 record against Chicago in the regular season. “We just been really inconsistent at times – we got comfortable during the regular season when we got leads as well as we did tonight. Tonight our focus was for 48 minutes.”

Funny how the urgency takes hold when the wiggle room vanishes. “You’ve just got to know that it’s win or go home,” said Wallace, whose 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks mattered less than the aggressiveness he showed, particularly on defense (his counterpart, Luol Deng, got sideways with just six points on 3-of-11 shooting).

“There’s no, ‘Well, OK, we’ll just chalk this one and come back tomorrow.’ We don’t have 82 games to kind of fix things. Four losses and we’re at home. And all the little nick-nack things and petty things that you had to deal with during the regular season have to be thrown out the window now.”

Swapping East Rutherford, N.J., for their fancy new digs, the Nets brought to their new home an almost entirely new team. That bunch got off to an unrealistically perky start – 11-4 through November for East Coach of the Month Avery Johnson, who was gone before their full reversal in December (5-11) was complete.

The parts didn’t always fit, especially with Williams out of shape, aching in his ankles and generally cranky about it all. Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo steered the Nets to the best winning percentage in franchise history (.648) but there still were hiccups late in the regular season, including a loss to Toronto and a scare against Indiana.

But Williams shed some weight, got specialized treatment on his ankles and came back from a getaway All-Star break in Miami looking like a new player, as in, the old D-Will. Guys around him got healthier and more comfortable playing with him, even as Williams’ bursts and jump shots improved.

The Nets’ attention to detail picked up. They have made it routine to get Lopez active early, because of the good things that usually follow. Just run to the rim, big fella. As forward Reggie Evans said: “I have so much confidence up to the point where I know he’s gonna bring it every night. I won’t worry about him … we’ve already been talking about this moment and stuff. Typical Lope – here early, ready to roll, and he did what he did. You can’t really argue, one of the top two big men in the league by far.”

There was hardly a thing to dislike, as “Brooklyn basketball” played to an identity Saturday rather than just a marketing slogan. Highlights abounded, from vet Jerry Stackhouse singing the anthem to Williams swiping the ball and racing downcourt for a reverse dunk.

Chicago was the team in off-day disarray, with a lot of its fans wondering if Noah’s sore right foot (plantar fasciitis) can heal enough again to allow him on the court. Failing that, some who noticed All-Star guard Derrick Rose on the visitors’ bench might be wondering if Noah’s heart could be transplanted into Rose’s chest. The healthiest guy on Chicago’s roster might be the one who hasn’t played since last April 28.

Still, this one was about Brooklyn, so much so that some were bemoaning the Nets’ failure to chase down the No. 3 seed, considering the second-round showdown it might have set up with the Knicks.

For now, though, one Brooklyn postseason game that went right nearly 57 years after the last one went wrong was cause enough for anticipation.

Williams, touting “ball movement, defensively being attentive and helping each other out,” called it “really unselfish basketball.” And “fun basketball.”

“We’ve had ups and downs all season,” the point guard said. “But I think we always expected to be in the playoffs. and hopefully [we’re] clicking at the right time.”

Have We Seen The Best Of The Nets?

a

BROOKLYN – The Brooklyn Nets gave one away on Thursday, blowing an early 16-point lead and falling to the very undermanned Chicago Bulls, 92-90. Ultimately, the loss may not mean anything, because the Nets still have a 1 1/2 game lead on the Bulls for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and face Lottery teams, against whom they’re 29-6 this season, in five of their last seven games.

A fourth-place finish in the East would give the Nets home-court advantage in first round, likely against Atlanta or Chicago. A loss in that series would be a disappointment, especially when you consider Brooklyn’s payroll. A win would set them up to lose in four or five games to the Miami Heat.

Other than losing in the first round, there’s no avoiding that fate, which has basically been the path the Nets have been on for the last couple of weeks, since the Knicks and Pacers started playing well again.

I wrote about this yesterday. And maybe this is just who the Nets are. Maybe they’re just a good, but not great, basketball team.

But it’s hard not to wonder if we’ve ever really seen the best of the Nets this season. They currently rank ninth in offensive efficiency and 19th defensively. They could and, really, should be better.

Injuries have been an issue. Deron Williams has missed just three games this season, but was clearly not at his best for the first 50 games, dealing with sore ankles and other various ailments. He’s been much better since the All-Star break, but Joe Johnson has had a couple of different injuries since then. Brook Lopez‘s foot injury in late November is what really knocked the Nets off track after a strong start. And Gerald Wallace, in standard Gerald Wallace fashion, has been banged up too.

The Nets have looked like a great team at times. They have road wins in Boston, Oklahoma City, New York and Indiana. But, other than a 12-2 stretch after P.J. Carlesimo took over for Avery Johnson, success has always been rather fleeting.

Carlesimo made some minor changes, gave Mirza Teletovic a shot in the rotation after the break, and is now giving MarShon Brooks more consistent playing time than he’s had all season. But he has been pretty vanilla with his lineups, and that’s where the Nets may be leaving something on the table.

Of Lopez’s 2,079 minutes on the floor, 1,639 (79 percent) have been played with either Reggie Evans or Kris Humphries at power forward. Neither Evans nor Humphries, of course, spaces the floor very well.

Teletovic is very different from Evans or Humphries, in that he can shoot from beyond five feet. But he has played just 112 minutes at the four next to Lopez.

Andray Blatche has also shot the ball well out to 19 feet or so. But he has played just 86 minutes with Lopez. The Nets’ five best players are arguably Williams, Johnson, Wallace, Blatche and Lopez, a group that has played just 20 minutes together over four games this season.

One of the best lineups the Nets have had this season is a small one. Williams, Keith Bogans, Johnson, Wallace and Lopez have outscored their opponents by 18.3 points per 100 possessions in 107 minutes together. Now, those numbers are skewed somewhat by a couple of late-December games against the Bobcats and Cavs, but that lineup has played just seven minutes together since the All-Star break.

In total, Lopez has played just 242 minutes with someone other than Blatche, Evans, Humphries or Teletovic at power forward. And those minutes have been very good, especially defensively.

Nets efficiency with Brook Lopez on the floor

Power forward MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Reggie Evans 1,125 105.6 103.2 +2.4 +69
Kris Humphries 514 106.1 105.1 +1.0 +14
Mirza Teletovic 112 115.8 110.4 +5.3 +19
Andray Blatche 86 104.8 100.3 +4.6 +17
Other (small lineups) 242 106.3 99.2 +7.1 +72
TOTAL 2,079 106.4 103.5 +2.9 +191

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

When asked about his lineups, Carlesimo has said that he goes with matchups. But he has obviously been leaning heavily on Evans of late, even using him on two crucial offensive possessions in the final minute of Thursday’s loss, thinking Evans might get the Nets a second chance with an offensive rebound.

The Nets have actually been better offensively with Evans on the floor (scoring 105.4 points per 100 possessions) than with him off the floor (103.8), but most of those off-floor minutes have come with Humphries, similarly limited offensively, at power forward.

This is why it’s hard to know if we’ve seen the best of the Nets this season. Those 242 minutes of small-ball aren’t a lot to go on. And neither are the 86 minutes Lopez has played with Blatche.

Lopez is Brooklyn’s most important player on both ends of the floor. And in the playoffs, his minutes should surely increase from the 30.7 per game he’s played in the regular season. Does that mean that Blatche will be limited to just 10-12 minutes, or will we actually see the two on the floor together? Is there a matchup (Josh Smith, perhaps) that will allow Carlesimo to play Wallace at the four?

In four games against Atlanta (all under Carlesimo), the Nets have played small a total of seven minutes. So the answer to that last question is probably “no.”

Now, it’s unfair to really condemn the coach for not taking more chances with his rotation. He took over in the middle of the season, with the Nets going through a serious rough patch. More than anything, they just needed to get their best players playing well. And obviously, Lopez and Williams are doing just that.

Still, we have to wonder if this team has reached its potential.

***

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. Send him an e-mail or follow him on twitter.

D-Will Stays Scorching, Hangs 31 Points On Cuban’s Mavericks

x

DALLAS – Deron Williams swears he didn’t so much as wink at Mark Cuban seated baseline as the Brooklyn Nets point guard delivered a 31-point, six-assist wrecking ball to the Dallas Mavericks’ rapidly collapsing playoff chances.

A chip on his shoulder? Not if you believe Williams. Wednesday’s 113-96 win was just like any other his team badly needs. And after inflicting a world of hurt on Cuban and his club, Williams didn’t gloatingly tweet the Mavs owner a la Kobe Bryant, who went for 38 after being tweaked by the outspoken owner a couple of weeks ago.

No, the sharp stick to Cuban’s side was surprisingly wielded by interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo.

“I don’t know,” Carlesimo said when asked if Williams, who scored 26 points in the second half and 13 in the fourth quarter, carried a chip on his shoulder. “But, I’m sure [Williams] understands you’re not going to expect intelligent statements from Mark anyhow.”

Zing.

Williams spurned his hometown team last July as a free agent when he chose to re-sign with the Nets for a max deal of five years and $98 million. Afterward, Williams said he was surprised that Cuban, who was busy in Los Angeles filming the TV show “Shark Tank,” didn’t make the trip to New York to personally sell him on joining the Mavs. Williams said Cuban’s absence helped shape his decision to play in Brooklyn. Cuban responded by saying on a local radio program that his club is actually better off without Williams and the max deal he would have received weighing down the payroll.

“I always get up for the games at home because it’s home and given the situation,” Williams said, who came as close as any time previously of acknowledging a rift with Cuban by referencing ‘the situation.’ “Honestly, I just tried to attack it as a regular game. My thought process was the same today as it is any other game. I didn’t need anything special. It was just a regular game for us, but a big game for us.”

As the Mavs (32-36) limp away from a 14th home loss and the sour opening of a crucial six-game homestand dominated by East opponents, the Nets (40-28) skipped off to sunny Los Angeles for a couple of days of rest and practice before seeking a third consecutive victory on this brutal eight-game trek against the Clippers.

Williams, who hails from a Dallas suburb about 25 miles from the American Airlines Center, is playing his best basketball of the season, rejuvenated from an All-Star break cocktail of platelet-rich plasma therapy, juice cleanser and cortisone shots into both his ailing ankles.

He’s put up 31 points in consecutive games and is averaging 23.9 ppg on 48 percent shooting since the break. Williams refused to talk about his health, offering only a smart-aleck answer when asked if he’s feeling as good as he has all season.

“I really appreciate your concern with my health,” Williams said. “I really do. Thank you.”

We’ll just have to trust the numbers, his teammates, his coach and what he’s telling his coach.

“I kept telling him I would get him out a minute or two in the second half,” said Carlesimo, who played Williams all but 52 seconds of the second half and 41 minutes in all. “And he goes, ‘Are you watching what’s going on out there? So, obviously we didn’t take him out until the the end. I’m not saying that’s as good as we can play, but that’s one of our best games obviously all year.”

Williams got needed help from center Brook Lopez, who matched the 38 points he scored last season in Dallas. Andray Blatche hit six of seven shots and scored all of his 14 points in the first half. Reggie Evans pulled down 22 rebounds in 32 minutes. Gerald Wallace came up with five steals. Joe Johnson dished five assists.

Unlike a few nights ago when the Nets failed to catch their cross-town rival in the East standings by being embarrassed on their home floor by the Atlanta Hawks, they turned up the defensive pressure and poured it on Dallas with 66 points in the second half. Williams and Lopez combined for 46.

With 14 games left and six to go on this so-far 2-0 road trip that Williams said will “define our season,” we are left to wonder where this team, that has mastered the bit of game-to-game inconsistency, will fare now that Williams is again playing like an All-Star.

When the fourth-place Nets finally return home on April 4, after also road-tripping through Portland, Denver, Utah and Cleveland, the No. 2 seed could be within their grasp or a first-round series at home could be falling through their fingers. Brooklyn is two games back of No. 2 Indiana and two games ahead of No. 5 Atlanta.

“This is a good trip for us at the right time,” Williams said. “It’ll define the season for us because we have some tough games ahead of us. We have a lot of days off, but we also have a lot of back-to-backs, which is tough. We’ve got to maintain focus for the rest of the trip and make sure that we don’t slip up.”

Heat Often Put Themselves On Cruise Control … Just Not Against Brooklyn

.

BROOKLYN – Poor Nets.

They played the Miami Heat three times this season, and all three times, the defending champs were engaged, focused or motivated. Pick whichever of those three words you prefer to describe the way the Heat have played only some of the time this season.

The Heat completed a three-game season sweep on Wednesday in Brooklyn, blowing out the Nets in the third quarter on their way to a 105-85 victory. They won the three meetings by an average of 21 points and LeBron James has now won 17 straight games against the team owned by his friend Jay-Z.

So the Nets never got to see the Heat team that shows up at the arena and mostly goes through the motions, the team that knows it can flip the switch in the postseason, or the team that seems happy with just a game-and-a-half lead in the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks, the team trailing the Heat, saw that Heat team two times already, once in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and once when they were missing Carmelo Anthony. The Spurs, similarly, saw that Heat team when they decided to send four players home before that TNT game back in November. And the Celtics, missing Rajon Rondo, saw that Heat team on Sunday.

Yes, the Heat are in first place. But should they really be 11-10 on the road? Should they really rank 11th in defensive efficiency and allowing 4.3 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season?

The Heat have the best player in the world, two more All-Stars and maybe the best shooter in NBA history. And they’ve been relatively healthy all season. Yet, they’re barely ahead of a New York team that went 8-10 from Dec. 17 to Jan. 26 and has missed countless games to injury.

A championship team on cruise control through the regular season is nothing new. But it’s still OK to be a little disappointed in how the Heat have played this season.

“We understand that 10-10 on the road is not to our potential,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before his team picked up road win No. 11 on Wednesday. “But we’ll have many opportunities to correct that in the second half.”

Sometimes, as it was on Sunday, the problem has been offense.

“Turnovers are the key,” Shane Battier said. “Everyone wants to kill us for rebounding, and our numbers are poor. No question. But that’s not the barometer of our success. The turnover battle is the end-all, be-all for us. When we get extra possessions and we limit giving away extra possessions, we’re going to score. We’re a high-efficiency offensive team.”

Indeed, the Heat are 17-2 when they’ve committed 13 turnovers or less. They had 21 in Boston on Sunday, their second-worst offensive game of the season in terms of efficiency. They were much sharper against the Nets.

But defense has been the larger problem. The Heat ranked fourth defensively last season and are 11th this year. Only four teams have regressed more defensively.

The Heat are at their best when they’re active and aggressive defensively, using their speed and athleticism to its fullest. And maybe it’s just not possible to play elite defense like that for 82 games. But a little more defensive effort could give them the cushion they need in case they do suffer an injury or two in February or March.

“It just required concentration, and our concentration has not been great, especially on the road,” Battier said. “Everyone knows the system here. It’s not a matter of ignorance. It’s a matter of effort and concentration. When we’re dialed in and supply that concentration, we’re a pretty darn good defensive team. When we don’t, we’re pretty porous.”

On Wednesday, the Heat proved that, when they’re “dialed in,” they’re in a class above the Nets, who had the league’s No. 1 offense in January before they were held under a point per possession by the champs.

“I think we were really aggressive against these guys all three times, both offensively and defensively,” Battier said. “It was good to see tonight on the road. We haven’t been this aggressive on the road in a while. We really attacked them and tried to take them out of their sets.”

On Friday, the Heat visit the Pacers, the team that held them to a season-low 77 points in Indiana in early January. It’s a second-straight opportunity to take one of the East’s season-tier teams and knock them down a peg. So it will be interesting to see which Heat team shows up.

For the Nets, no matter how much success they’ve had under P.J. Carlesimo and no matter what they do over their last 36 games, they’ll know that they haven’t been able to hang with the champs. Knowing that there’s no avoiding the Heat in the playoffs, they should have treated this like their most important game of the season. Maybe they did, and maybe they just caught the Heat on the wrong day … again.

“In any sport, you measure yourself up against the champions, and they are the champions,” Gerald Wallace told Newsday. “They’ve embarrassed us all three times, so what does that say for us as a team trying to be a championship team?”