Nets Make Collapsing Down the Stretch a Losing Habit
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It was just five days ago that I said the Nets-Heat playoff series was “New Jersey’s series to lose.”
Man, did they lose it.
Perhaps the Game 2 letdown in Miami could have been expected. With the Nets sporting a gimpy Richard Jefferson and the Heat playing with the cornered animal mentality that infects teams already down 1-0 on their home court, New Jersey faced long odds on Wednesday.
What happened in East Rutherford this weekend, however, is a different story. Faced with two winnable games that were up for grabs down the stretch, the Nets crumbled in a sea of fourth-quarter bricks. Now they face the daunting task of winning three straight games, two of which are on the road, to reach the conference finals. In league history, only eight teams that trailed 3-1 were able to come back and win the series, and none of them were contending with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade.
Games 3 and 4 followed virtually identical plots, and in fact had virtually identical scores (102-92 yesterday, 103-92 Friday). In both games, the Nets entered the fourth quarter with the game well in reach; Both times, their offense fizzled down the stretch. The Nets posted a 19-point fourth quarter yesterday, and mustered only 20 on Friday.
Most puzzling has been the Nets’ inability to make wide-open jumpers. Nenad Krstic played like he thought they gave bonus points for hitting the front rim, repeatedly short-arming the corner jump shots that have been his bread-and-butter all year. He had plenty of company, though. The Nets went 10-for-38 (26.3%) on 3-pointers in the two home defeats, despite most of the looks being open shots for the team’s three best long-range shooters (Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, and Lamond Murray).
They weren’t much better when they had uncontested looks from 15 feet. New Jersey shot 63.6% from the foul line over the weekend – um, weren’t the Heat supposed to be the free-throw brickmasons? – including two critical misses by Carter in the fourth quarter yesterday.
An even bigger choke came courtesy of Clifford Robinson, who set a new low in his two-decade history of playoff disappointments when he earned a five game suspension before Game 3 for violating the league’s drug policy. Already faced with a comically thin bench, the Nets had to turn to 10-day contract afterthought John Thomas as the primary frontcourt sub, with predictable results – he contributed just a single point in 16 minutes of inaction.
Had Robinson spent more time supporting the Nets’ cause and less supporting the Jamaican economy, it also would have eased the strain on the rest of the Nets’ frontcourt. Jason Collins would have used his six fouls against Shaquille O’Neal more liberally had a capable replacement been in reserve. And certainly, the Lamond Murray experiment – putting the jump-shooting specialist at power forward for large chunks of the second half in Game 4 – would never have seen the light of day with Robinson in the fold.
Before we close the book on a forgettable weekend in the swamp, let’s also give some kudos to Miami head man Pat Riley. One reason the Heat defended so much better in the fourth quarters of Games 3 and 4 is because he turned to two veteran defenders off his bench, James Posey and Gary Payton. The duo combined to force four Nets’ turnovers in a crucial five-possession sequence late in Game 3, and their defense was a huge reason the Heat slammed the door again in Game 4. In particular, Posey’s presence took away the blow-bys that Jefferson was getting any time he wanted against Antoine Walker, and that allowed his teammates to focus their efforts on helping against Carter.
With Riley having made the crucial adjustment, it’s hard to imagine what Lawrence Frank can do to change the outcome in Tueday’s Game 5. With Robinson suspended, he doesn’t have many cards to play, and most of them are threes and fours in the off-suit. The Nets’ bench is horrible, so there’s little chance of the kind of dramatic lineup switch that allowed Dallas to get the upper hand on San Antonio this weekend.
Thus, if the Nets are to extend their season, it will come down to the same core players making the shots they spent all weekend missing.
Of course, the Nets aren’t the only big basketball story in the area this weekend. Word out of Madison Square Garden is that the Knicks are negotiating to buy out the remaining four years on coach Larry Brown’s contract.
You can hardly argue with the logic. I thought hiring Brown for this team was the wrong move from the get-go, mostly because its roster lacked the strong defenders, wily veterans, and deferential point guards that Brown prefers. And in the wake of a season in which Brown basically lost the team, it was hard to imagine his coming back and trying to coach the same group again next season.
Here’s the shocking part, though: The rumored replacement is none other than team president Isiah Thomas, who apparently impressed himself in the job interview. From the perspective of ownership, there’s actually some cleverness to this maneuver. Hiring Thomas saves them the contract of a new coach, which makes swallowing the more than $40 million remaining on Brown’s deal slightly more appetizing.
And who better to coach this team than Thomas? The one thing that’s become abundantly clear during the past two seasons is that most of the players were far more loyal to Thomas than to whoever coached them. Were Thomas to be directly responsible on a day-to-day basis, those players – notably Stephon Marbury – could no longer count on having management’s support if they get in a spat with the coach.
Such a move increases the player’s accountability, but it also increases Thomas’s. No longer could he blame the coaches for the failures of his ill-chosen roster or hide from the press for weeks at a time during losing streaks. As such, it could bring the Knicks one step closer to a Moment of Clarity, when MSG’s brass finally discovers its chosen emperor isn’t wearing any clothes and brings in a real general manager.
That’s probably the best that can be said for replacing Brown with Thomas. It means the end for Thomas may be drawing closer, and that the team might be a little less dysfunctional in the mean time. But at this point, Knicks fans will take a silver lining any way they can get it.