Seven games in May, please.
In the thrilling conclusion to the four-game series between the cross-bridge rival Brooklyn Nets and (Manhattan) New York Knicks, the Nets eked out an 88-85 victory on Brooklyn’s Backcourt’s back, riding 25 points (10 in the fourth quarter) from Joe Johnson, including the final go-ahead bucket with 22.3 seconds left, and surviving through a 1-for-2 trip for Deron Williams at the line with five seconds remaining (Williams had made 52 consecutive free throws before that miss, a career-best) to earn the win.
The victory gives the Nets a 25-16 record at the halfway point of the season, puts them one game behind the Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead, and ties up the season series at 2 apiece.
The teams won’t play again in the regular season.
In a close battle throughout — the biggest lead on either side was ten points, six in the fourth quarter — the Nets executed on both sides of the floor more effectively than in the last matchup between these two teams, a 100-86 blowout in the Garden. No, this time the “BROOK-LYNNN” chants after the game were not sneering or derisive, but celebratory from the sparsely scattered Brooklyn crowd.
Things done changed. Tyson Chandler, who abused the Nets in the pick-and-roll in their last matchup, was stifled by a new defense that saw immediate rotations from corner defenders, shutting down the potential lane as Nets guards flew over the screen with purpose. Carmelo Anthony got his points — as he always does — but needed 29 attempts for 29 points and airballed his final attempt, a nearly identical isolation play to Johnson’s. The Knicks’ usual cast of three-point shooting characters was nowhere to be found, as the Nets shot 12-24 from outside the arc. If you’d choose either of these team’s starting centers as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, it wouldn’t be Chandler; though Brook Lopez certainly got fooled on a couple of occasions, the Knicks shot just 18-43 from within 10 feet with Lopez on the floor and Lopez registered four blocked shots in 34 minutes.
The Nets are now 11-2 in the P.J. Carlesimo era, better than any 13-game stretch in Avery Johnson’s tenure. “It’s a different style (under Carlesimo),” Williams said of his new coach. “A different voice. He’s been great. Guys are responding well. He’s different from a lot of coaches I’ve played for. His sense of humor and sarcasm. He’s defined roles. He’s done a great job of leading this team.”
“I know it’s going to sound silly because we won, but it was a hell of a basketball game for New York,” Carlesimo added in the post-game scrum. “People should be proud of that game.”
Though Johnson went through an up-and-down fourth quarter. After hitting three consecutive shots in a 1:50 span to give the Nets an 83-77 lead, the team allowed Joe to fulfill his derided nickname — Iso-Joe — and watched Johnson miss three straight isolationist looks. But in the waning moments, Joe Johnson went into isolation mode one more time, and it worked, firing a clean pull-up jumper over Jason Kidd with 22.3 seconds left to put the Nets up 85-84 and for good.
What most stories of the game won’t tell you is that even as Johnson is hoisted as the team’s savior, its lead deliverer of the coup de grâce, the ball wasn’t supposed to end up in his hands on that final play. The original call posted Lopez on the right block, and Johnson was only there for spacing purposes. “I didn’t know if they were going to double Brook (Lopez) or not, and they did,” Johnson noted after the game. “He swung it to Deron, and Deron swung it to me.
“I wanted to make a play. I wasn’t passing it,” Johnson laughed.
While most players — including Johnson — will often tell you that the NBA is a long season, that you take one game at a time, that no game means more than another, even Johnson knew that this shot was different.
“This magnitude, and this atmosphere in New York… that was a big shot,” Johnson said of his pull-up jumper with 22.3 seconds left. “This game meant a lot more than the game-winner I made against Detroit.”