Posts Tagged ‘P.J. Carlesimo’

Teletovic, Nets punish Heat ‘D’ in Game 3

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Heat vs. Nets: Game 3

NEW YORK – As the Chicago Bulls didn’t bother to defend Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Brooklyn Nets forward Mirza Teletovic sat.

Though his team was suffering from a lack of floor spacing, the floor-spacing big played just one garbage-time minute as the Nets got bounced in seven games. Teletovic, a 27-year-old rookie, had never gained the trust of coaches Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo. He got a shot at the rotation for a few weeks after the All-Star break, shot decently, and then rode the pine the rest of the way.

This season, Teletovic had the trust of coach Jason Kidd from the start. His been in the rotation from Day 1 and has had a consistent role. Kidd has never been afraid use his bench for heavy minutes or in key situations.

His trust and his team’s depth paid off in Game 3 of the conference semifinals, a 104-90 victory over the Miami Heat in which Andray Blatche paced the Nets in the first half and in which Teletovic sparked the Nets’ game-deciding third-quarter run with three of his four 3-pointers.

After struggling offensively in the first two games of the series, Brooklyn broke out on Saturday, hitting a franchise-playoff-record 15 treys on 25 attempts and scoring 104 points on just 84 possessions. The passes were a notch crisper than they were in Game 2, and the Heat defense was punished for the attention it put on the ball.

“The thing that was great about it was the ball movement,” Joe Johnson, who shot 5-for-7 from beyond the arc, said, “us getting into the teeth of the defense and kicking out for wide open shots.”

Teletovic’s shots weren’t all wide open, but once he sees one go in, how open he is doesn’t seem to matter. He’s now 11-for-19 from beyond the arc in the series and 17-for-34 in six games against the Heat this season.

His defense has always been a question and is the biggest reason he never earned Carlesimo’s trust last year. But Kidd had him defending LeBron James for a stretch of the third, a period in which the Heat scored just 14 points.

As Miami struggled, Brooklyn found some separation by spreading the floor and moving the ball.

The Heat’s defense can be suffocating, but open shots can be had if the ball moves quickly. Teletovic’s first 3-pointer (video) was an open look from the right corner on a possession in which the Nets passed the ball eight times, including three times in the four seconds before Teletovic’s shot.

Other 3s were just one pass away, as Deron Williams took advantage of the attention he was getting from the Heat defense.

“Some of it came off our defensive schemes,” James said of the Nets’ 3-point shooting, “Shrink the floor on their perimeter guys and close out on their shooters.”

After missing all nine of his shots in Game 2 on Thursday, Williams shot just 3-for-11 in Game 3. The Heat haven’t given him anything easy all series.

But the reason why Williams has struggled to score is the same reason why he dished out 11 assists on Saturday. Because the Heat are showing him so many bodies when he has the ball, his teammates have some space. And Williams maximized his team’s opportunities by pushing the ball up the floor early and often.

“D-Will set the tone,” Kidd said, “by being aggressive and attacking.”

Three of Johnson’s 3s came on transition assists from Williams. Even in the half-court, Williams was at the center of Brooklyn’s ball movement, moving the ball from side to side and making the Miami defense work.

“The way they are playing me with two on the ball and coming up at me,” Williams said, “I need to make the right plays and get people the ball.”

The Nets probably aren’t going to shoot 60 percent from 3-point range again. Some of those 15 treys on Saturday were pretty well contested. They’re still down 2-1 in the series and have a smaller margin for error in every game than their opponent.

But they can continue to take advantage of the Miami defense and give themselves a chance to win with the same offensive mentality that they brought to Game 3.

“If we continue to share the ball, we’ll be successful,” Williams said. “The ball has to be faster than their rotations.”

It helps to have guys who can make shots. You just have to give them the playing time.

Trust Binds Brooks, Young Stars To OKC


VIDEO: Take a closer look at Scott Brooks’ coaching style and strategy

OKLAHOMA CITY – Scott Brooks does a bad job of bragging. As he continued to redirect credit for Oklahoma City’s ongoing success to a meticulous organizational structure and its young stars, the Thunder’s coach, self-deprecating to a fault, spotted Wilson Taylor in the distance.

Taylor is the club’s 30-year-old manager of team operations. The morning shootaround had ended moments earlier and Taylor was busily attending to some normally behind-the-scenes tasks at the other end of the team’s sprawling, immaculately lit training facility eight miles north of downtown. Like Brooks and multiple members of OKC’s staff — general manager Sam Presti, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, roster rock Nick Collison – Taylor’s been with the team since it opened shop here in the summer of 2008.

“People don’t talk about this, but Sam has done a great job hiring, not necessarily me, but everybody in this building,” Brooks said in an interview last week with NBA.com. “You talk to Wilson right there, he understands that his job is to get our players better. And we all have the same mentality, from our therapists, from our sports scientists, from our trainers, from our equipment managers; we all understand our job is to get our players better, and I take pride in all those guys.”

Still, Brooks, 48, is the coach. And he’s overseeing one of the most unique and potentially historic team-building processes in the modern, free-agent-frenzied NBA. From the start of his career, Brooks has been coaching a rising icon (Durant), a perennial all-NBA player (Westbrook) and a roster that boasts, even after Jeff Green and James Harden‘s departures 20 months apart, seven homegrown players and six who are 25 or younger.

In the last four seasons, the Thunder have challenged the Lakers in the first round, made the West finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012 before last season’s hope got short-circuited in the West semis after a Westbrook knee injury.

Now here they are again.

The bedrock for all this success lies deeper than shrewd drafting. It lies with the bond Brooks forged early on with his two divergent stars. That put the youthful crew on a developmental fast track and put OKC on the map.

On Sunday, Brooks will coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans because his Thunder sit atop the heated Western Conference with 42 wins in 54 games. Holler if you called that following Westbrook’s third knee surgery the day after he dropped a Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.

The only team in the league to rank in the top five in offensive and defensive rating? The Thunder. They’ve popped East powerhouses Miami and Indiana by a combined 41 points.

This is arguably the deepest OKC squad ever and, assuming Westbrook resumes his season in the coming days, the Thunder are the favorite to win the West. (more…)

Blogtable: P.J. and Vinny




Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Week 28: Favorite playoff underdog | Heat’s stumble | P.J. and Vinny


Did P.J. Carlesimo have to go? Does Vinny Del Negro have to go?

Steve Aschburner: Let’s see, all Brooklyn did under P.J. Carlesimo was win at a clip (.648) greater than any Nets coach in history. Then, in the span of two weeks, he got lousy at his job? Right. That crew in the locker room has issues, from self-absorption to softness to an odd array of talents (not even the Teamsters need brawn badly enough to have Reggie Evans, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, aging Gerald Wallace and a 42-year-old Jerry Stackhouse on one roster). Blame the owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who is impatient and star-driven, essentially the opposite of team-building. Del Negro? Well, the franchise has had two seasons of .600 or better winning in its 41 years. So of course the coach who oversaw it must go. In this case, it might be a win-win. Point guard Chris Paul gets control not just on the floor but off it and Del Negro gets that boost on his resume that accrues to all who exit the Clippers.

Fran BlineburyI thought P.J. did a solid job after taking over for Avery Johnson and thought he earned a chance to come back next season with his own coaching staff and a full training camp. It’s pretty clear Nets ownership wants a name they can put up on the marquee. On the other hand, despite 56 wins and the first division title in franchise history, the Clippers have clearly gone as far as they can go with Del Negro. Yes, Chris Paul is their best player and team leader, but he can’t be the only voice. The Clips need a coach who can put his stamp on the team, teach Blake Griffin to play defense and stop simply relying on the whole Lob City facade.

Vinny Del Negro (by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Vinny Del Negro (by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan: I like P.J., he’s the genuine article, but this roster needs a stern hand to come in and throw down the hammer. Because of the payroll and the restrictive nature of the new CBA for teams like Brooklyn that are over the luxury tax, this club is going to look very similar next season so a new approach is needed to maximize players like Joe Johnson and a low-scoring forward duo of Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace, who after the entire season weirdly stated that he had no idea what his role is. As for Vinny Del Negro, what does Chris Paul want? I mean that’s really all that matters at this point. But man, I really want VDN to succeed. He’s been ridiculed and ripped since he entered the league as a no-experience head coach with Chicago. The bottom line in L.A. is that the roster was not as good as many thought. Did VDN not squeeze enough out of these guys or did players like DeAndre Jordan not fulfill his contract and potential? The bottom line is if the organization believes VDN’s strategies, adjustments, etc., did not serve the team well and/or the players don’t respect him, then it’s time to move on.

Scott Howard-Cooper: Carlesimo did not have to go — the Nets’ problems were in place before he got a chance — but it is no surprise that he did. Del Negro is more in the has-to-go category. Bad finish to the regular season after a good start. Bad finish to the playoffs after a good start. Players openly questioning the lack of strategy.

John Schuhmann: Though I was pretty critical of his extended use of a forward combination that was clearly hurting his team offensively, I don’t necessarily think that Carlesimo had to go, because we don’t know what kinds of changes he would have made with a full summer and training camp. He was handed the reins in late December, righted the ship and got his two best players playing well again, which was very important. And come playoff time, his bench options were pretty limited, because guys like Keith Bogans and Jerry Stackhouse couldn’t hit a shot. Still, I think he could have been more creative with his offense and given a floor-spacer like Mirza Teletovic more playing time to figure things out. The Clippers should probably make a move too. Like the Nets, they need someone who can be a little more creative offensively and hold his players accountable on the defensive end. That team has top-five talent, but seemed to be treading water over the last two months of the season.

Sekou Smith: Carlesimo had to go. The Nets haven’t exactly hid the fact that they’re interested in some superstar type to come in and run the show in Brooklyn. And that’s not a knock on Carlesimo, mind you, it’s just the facts as we all know them. Truth be told, it wouldn’t have mattered who coached this team. The moment that Game 7 debacle at ended Saturday night at Barclays Center, it was obvious that the Nets’ next move would be to relieve their head coach of his duties and begin the hunt for suitable replacement. The Del Negro question is best suited for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Because we all know that they are the guys who hold Del Negro’s fate in their hands. If the Clippers’ two biggest stars demand that Vinny D remains in place, then it will be hard for the Clippers to make that move without a blockbuster hire to replace him (and we’re talking about a Phil Jackson-type blockbuster). As long as the monstrous shadow of the Zen Master hovers over both the Clippers and Lakers, no coach in either franchise is free from the drama. It’s nothing personal against Vinny. It’s just time to go if the Clippers plan on going bold in their pitch to keep Paul.

Lang Whitaker: As much as I like PJ Carlesimo, I understand why the Nets let him go. This is a franchise very concerned with perception, and Carlesimo was too much of a ham-and-egger to ever fit in perfectly. The first-round knockout surely didn’t help matters, although as the Bulls continue to rampage through the postseason, I wonder if eventually a postseason loss to this Bulls team will be viewed in a less harsh light? The Clips obviously need to settle the Del Negro question as soon as possible, with Chris Paul approaching free agency. The Clippers’ flameout in the Playoffs got progressively worse as they went along, and Del Negro’s inability to settle on a rotation became more and more glaring. The Clippers have improved greatly, but if they’re going to contend for a title, they need to do it now. As such, it’s time for a coach who can get them over that final hurdle. And that coach is not Vinny Del Negro.

Noah Fulfills Promise With Huge Game 7

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NEW YORK – There’s no way to avoid it. This was about toughness and defense.

Actually, it was about Joakim Noah, who, in turn, is about toughness and defense.

It was Noah who promised that his team would win Game 7 in Brooklyn on Saturday. And it was Noah who was most responsible for that promise being fulfilled, leading the Chicago Bulls to a 99-93, series-ending victory.

“We’re going to go into a hostile environment, and we’re going to win,” Noah said after his Chicago Bulls lost Game 6 of their first round series with the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.

From the outside, it seemed a little far-fetched. And if you’re reading this, you already know the circumstances. No Derrick Rose. No Kirk Hinrich. No Luol Deng. Taj Gibson? Banged up. Noah? Banged up. This was (and still is) the M.A.S.H. unit of all M.A.S.H. units.

Meanwhile, the Nets had seemingly found their footing after their brutal collapse in Game 4, earning this Game 7 on their home floor with two series-saving victories. They had outscored the Bulls by 20 points over the course of the first six games. But never underestimate the heart of a … team that’s got more heart … and better defense.

Noah set the tone early, grabbing (or tipping) three offensive rebounds in the first three minutes on Saturday. Eventually, he took his offense to the outside, knocking down a couple of jumpers and attacking the Nets’ sagging defense from the high post.

Oh yeah, the Nets’ defense. It was terrible, especially in the first half.

The legacy of this Nets team may be that they didn’t care. More accurately, they didn’t defend. And appropriately, they started their summer vacation a little early by allowing a really bad offensive team (missing two key components) to score 61 points in the first half of the most important game of the season.

The killer stretch was the end of the second quarter, when Chicago scored on 13 of its final 15 possessions. And one of those two empty possessions was a wide-open corner 3-pointer for a guy – Daequan Cook – who won the 3-point shootout a few years ago. The Nets simply couldn’t stay in front of the Bull with the ball, whether he was guard or a big. Carlos Boozer drove right past Andray Blatche. Noah drove right past Reggie Evans. Marco Belinelli drove right past Gerald Wallace for maybe the biggest basket of the game.

Rinse. Repeat. See you next season.

“They got too many easy layups, easy baskets,” Deron Williams said. “Our defensive principles we didn’t execute today.”

The Bulls’ defense was far from perfect. It allowed the Nets, when they finally played with some energy, to score 31 points in the third quarter and climb back in the game. Brooklyn actually finished with more offensive rebounds (19) than Chicago (13), but they couldn’t convert them as well. And not coincidentally, it was the better defensive team that got the stops it needed down the stretch.

Noah, of course, was the anchor, and he kept Brook Lopez (21 points on 9-for-20 shooting) from ever getting much of a rhythm. Noah himself finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. All effort and energy.

“We were asking him to do a lot, basically be everywhere on our defense,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Defend the pick-and-roll, sprint back to the basket, close out, block out, pursue the ball. In every aspect of our defense, he’s exerting a lot of energy. He’s in unbelievable shape and he can make plays that very few can.”

Of course, Noah wasn’t in great shape a couple of weeks ago, dealing with plantar fasciitis that kept him out of 13 of the Bulls’ final 16 regular season games.

“The day before the playoffs, I was barely walking,” he said.

He played just 13 minutes in Game 1, but gradually started to feel better. And he obviously felt great on Saturday. Promise fulfilled.

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

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

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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.

Lopez, Blatche Power Up Nets’ Run

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CHICAGO – In this league of small ball and limited or specialized, defense-and-rebounding big men, the Brooklyn Nets have been going old-school middle on the Chicago Bulls in their first-round Eastern Conferene playoff series.

Brook Lopez, the NBA’s 10th-leading scorer during the regular season (19.4 ppg) against defenses both good and bad, ranks sixth in playoff scoring, getting his 23.6 points per game against one of the league’s most lockdown and locked-in defensive units. The 7-foot Lopez has topped 20 points in all five games and is pushing higher (21, 21, 22, 26 and 28). Lopez grabbed 30 rebounds in the three games heading into Game 6 Thursday at United Center, and his 3.4 blocked shots is tops in the postseason.

Then there’s Andray Blatche, who has backed up the best season of his eight-year, underdeveloped career with equal impact for the Nets in this series. Blatche, who carries more weight at 6-foot-11 than his roster-claimed 235 pounds, has almost identical numbers against Chicago as he had across 82 games in his first season as a Brooklyn sub. He is averaging 19.8 minutes and, pro-rated out to 36 minutes, is playing at a clip of 19.3 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent.

And here is the best part for Nets fans: Together, Lopez and Blatche have been loads of trouble for the vaunted Bulls’ defense. Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo has used them in tandem a total of only 36 minutes in the five games, but when they are on the court at the same time, the Nets have outscored Chicago by 38 points. That’s better than every other Nets tandem, including Lopez and Deron Williams (plus-28 in 171 minutes) and Williams and Joe Johnson (minus-2 in 166 minutes).

Some of that may be attributed to small sample size, but it’s also an indication of Brooklyn’s advantage with two offensively gifted big men against a Bulls front line that is playing hobbled (center Joakim Noah‘s plantar fasciitis, forward Taj Gibson‘s sore knee). Lopez and Blatche have given the Nets relief valve’s against Chicago’s shifting, aggressive defense, asserting the middle on a unit that breaks the court down strong side vs. weak.

“Well, they’re skilled,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Nets’ big men. “The thing is, both Lopez and Blatche can shoot the ball, they can put it on the floor, they can post the ball and they can get to the offensive board. When you add to it the greatness of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, it spreads you out pretty good.

“You may defend the initial part fairly well and then it’s the second and third part that you’re recovering, and making a second and third effort as a team, not just individually. Now when the ball is shot, you have to get back to bodies,,and that requires a lot of discipline and commitment.”

Play in the paint has dictated swings in this series. The Nets were at their best in Game 5′s victory, with 54 points in the paint to Chicago’s 42, a 24-12 edge in second-chance points and 17 offensive rebounds to 22 on defense for the Bulls. Lopez grabbed six of those, with Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries taking three each. Meanwhile, Blatche scored 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Nets own that period 33-18.

“Defensively and with rebounding, we have to do better,” Thibodeau said. “At playoff time, the more you go after, the more you’re going to get. Having a multiple-effort mentality is critical.”

Brooklyn’s mentality seems to be driven by taking that NBA playoffs’ “BIG” slogan seriously.

Rockets Answer Is Growin’ In the Win


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HOUSTON – Somewhere down the line, they might look back at it like a pencil mark drawn on the garage wall.

Perhaps one day they’ll pull it out of the back of the closet and shake their heads and smile at the memory of a favorite old pair of pants that no longer covers their ankles.

If the grand and glorious night in the future eventually comes when the confetti is falling, the triumphant music is blaring and commissioner Adam Silver is presenting the gold championship trophy up on the podium to their free agent acquisition Dwight Howard, they’ll know this is where it began.

Growth.

The Rockets shot up like weeds through cracks in the sidewalk, tripping the Thunder 105-103, also bringing down the nagging notion that they didn’t have the right stuff to finish.

It’s said that you have to crawl before you learn to walk and the Rockets had the scabs on their knees to prove it, having fallen into an 0-3 hole largely because they tumbled over the cliff late in each of the previous two games.

But this was a night when OKC’s splendid splinter Kevin Durant couldn’t get another four-bounce prayer to be answered because Patrick Beverley stepped in to take a charge in the clutch, because the hair shirt that was Francisco Garcia itched and wouldn’t let K.D. get off a winning 3-pointer and because Omer Asik stepped out to cut off a desperate, driving Reggie Jackson the paint.

It was not a win that will likely change the outcome of a series in which the Thunder are simply the better team. However, it was the kind of victory that blazes a trail and lays a foundation for where the Rockets franchise wants to go.

“Everyone else might say it’s just one game for us,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “But for us, it was our first playoff win with this group and you can’t get two playoff wins until you get the one. You can’t feel what we need to feel up in Oklahoma City with a team that says, ‘We don’t want to come back here for Game 6.”

There are still plenty of pieces missing from the puzzle until anyone thinks of the Rockets as championship contenders and trying to land Godzilla in the form of Howard over the summer remains the top priority.

Yet you can watch Chandler Parsons, the second-round draft choice who should embarrass every other scouting department with cable TV and a DVD player, blossom into a player that can do three things — shoot, drive and simply play like hell — and see growth.

You can see Asik, stuck on the bench for years in Chicago, make the most of an opportunity by defending the rim and pulling down rebounds simply because a team showed belief in him.

You can see little Beverley finishing off a basketball season that began in St. Petersburg, Russia by treating every possession on offense and defense as if he were still the last line of defense in the Cold War.

The entire NBA has seen James Harden explode like a Fourth of July firecracker since October, when he hit the ground running in Houston by trade from OKC four days before the start of the season and became a first-time All-Star and a player who could carry the load and carry a team. Here was a night when Harden was simply horrid, shooting just 4-for-12 from the field, scoring just 15 points and setting a franchise playoff record with a discombobulated 10 turnovers.

Yet where the Rockets of a few months ago might never have been in the game in the fourth quarter against the Thunder with Harden struggling and might simply have crumbled without him making every big basket, every big play down the stretch, there were others all around filling in the gaps.

Growth.

Harden knows that it’s a process that takes nurturing and patience. Barely a month into his rookie season in OKC, the Thunder were 1-12 and coach P.J. Carlesimo was replaced by Scott Brooks. They finished 23-59 that season.

A year later, the Thunder were 50-32 and got their first playoff taste of success, winning a pair of home games in a first-round series against the Lakers. The following season they reached the Western Conference finals and last year the NBA Finals.

There are never guarantees, but it usually is a process for a young team to learn how to compete, how to survive and how to thrive in the playoffs and it starts with something that might seem as insignificant as that very first win.

“It means a lot,” Harden said. “I think the previous two games, we let both of those slip away, having the lead late in the fourth quarter and just giving it away. So just to get the first one under our belt, now we have confidence going back to Oklahoma City and anything can happen.”

Someday, somewhere, somehow, if the plan keeps on coming together for these Rockets.

They’ll look at the pencil mark on the wall. They’ll smile at the pants that no longer fit. They’ll be able to remember exactly the night that it happened.

They grew.

Series hub: Thunder vs. Rockets

Nets Do It All Offensively To Stay Alive

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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.

Time For The Nets To Show Resolve

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The Brooklyn Nets aren’t going to out-tough the Chicago Bulls. No team can do that.

Led by Tom Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, the Bulls are certainly the most resilient team in the league, Exhibit A being Saturday’s comeback from 14 points down with three minutes to go in regulation and the ability to outlast the Nets in three overtimes with Noah, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson having fouled out.

“That’s been the nature of the team all season,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “They’ll keep battling. Things weren’t going our way, but there was no give-in. They just kept going.”

Now, it’s not like the Nets are pushovers. It takes a certain amount of toughness to build a 14-point lead in a hostile environment when you’re down 2-1 in the series. And the Nets managed to bounce back from blowing that 14-point lead to make some (just not enough) big plays down the stretch. Really, if just one of those crazy Robinson shots didn’t go in, this series would be tied 2-2.

It’s not though. And the Nets are now faced with the challenge of having to win three straight games. If they can’t, we can certainly declare their season a disappointment.

So Brooklyn will have to show more of its own resilience in Game 5 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT). Playing well in the face of elimination is a mental thing, especially in the wake of such a heartbreaking loss.

But the Nets shouldn’t lack confidence going forward. They have put up big numbers against the staunch Chicago defense twice in the series thus far. And though they’re 2-6 against the Bulls this season, they’ve been outscored by just 12 total points over the eight games.

“I don’t think it’s difficult for our guys to feel that they’re capable of doing this,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “I think that they feel we can beat the Bulls. Have we done it? No, we haven’t done it enough. But they know that we can do it.”

The Nets have seemingly been a team without character all season. They’re to be praised for taking care of business against bad teams (they were 35-7 against teams that finished below .500) and for compiling the league’s fifth-best road record (23-18). But they’re to be questioned for their 14-26 mark against winning teams and their defense, which wavered ranged from poor to mediocre most of the season.

Maybe that’s just who the Nets are, a good team that can’t hang when the going gets tough. Or maybe they haven’t shown us everything they have.

If the Nets are to show some resolve on Monday, it must manifest itself in execution as much as energy. They can continue to beat the Bulls’ defense if they get into their offense early, keep their stars – Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez — on the move, and knock down some shots. The absence of Kirk Hinrich — out with a calf injury — should benefit Williams on the perimeter.

Defensively, the Nets need to cut off Robinson in the pick-and-roll and put more pressure on Carlos Boozer at the high post. No other Chicago player has really been able to hurt them and the Bulls have been somewhat fortunate in that they’ve shot so well (54 percent) from mid-range. That number is not sustainable, especially if Brooklyn does a slightly better job of challenging those shots.

It’s all right there for the Nets. Chicago is certainly the tougher team, but not necessarily the better team. Down 3-1, proving that will be difficult, but nothing worthwhile comes easily.

It starts with Game 5.

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Hinrich’s absence (is status beyond Game 5 is unknown) could be a real killer for the Bulls. Here are some numbers that don’t paint a pretty picture for Chicago…