Brooklyn Nets find athletic blueprint in upset stunner over Cleveland Cavaliers

AP

AP

The 20-51 Brooklyn Nets finished off the 51-21 Cleveland Cavaliers with a 14-0 fourth-quarter run that turned a 92-90 nail-biter into a double-digit lead in the closing seconds, finishing with a final score of 104-95 after a meaningless three-pointer by little-used Cavaliers backup Jordan McRae shortly before time ran out.

Yes, you read that right.

“We had a lot more fight than we’ve shown in the last couple of games,” coach Tony Brown opened his post-game press conference by saying.

LeBron James, who has been to the NBA Finals in six consecutive years and is vying for a seventh, didn’t see the same effort from his Cavaliers teammates.

“What bothers me is our effort sometimes, and making sure our guys understand the moment that we have,” James said after the loss. “That’s the only time I can get a little frustrated because I can understand the moment that we have, and it’s not given that every year you have a team like this where you have an opportunity to do something special.”

While most of the post-game analysis will undoubtedly focus on James (30 points, 13-16 FG, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) and whatever symbolic artifact he’ll use to confirm both his imminent departure and guaranteed lifetime contract in Cleveland via Snapchat, there’s another side to this that will largely go overlooked: the Brooklyn Nets played one of their best games of the season Thursday night, and that began well before the last five minutes of the game.

The first half

The Nets finished off the Cavaliers with their fourth-quarter run, but laid the groundwork in the first half. The team led for the majority of the first half, ending the second quarter up 59-49.

By NBA standards, nobody would have accused the Brooklyn Nets of being an athletic team in the past few years. Deron Williams’s ankles kept him grounded. Joe Johnson’s nature kept him lofting floaters from below the rim. Paul Pierce treated the three-point line as a moat. Kevin Garnett roamed side to side with ease but so rarely turned that energy upwards he had to remind the media that “I ain’t dead” after dunking once in a game.

Perhaps that’s why the first half of Cavaliers-Nets was so staggering to watch: the Nets athletically dominated the far superior Cavaliers. Markel Brown leapt up for two blocks, swatting the seven-inches-his-senior Channing Frye on a post-up and later denying Kyrie Irving in transition — and it wasn’t even his most impressive leap of the night.

Rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson took on LeBron James one-on-one, dished out two assists, and nicked three steals in seven first-half minutes. Chris McCullough, who is still learning the Nets playbook and how his body moves at the NBA level after recovering from a torn ACL, rose up for one poster dunk, tried (and missed) an alley-oop on the next play, and grabbed five first-half rebounds.

“I thought that our energy and our athleticism out in the open court really helped us tonight,” coach Brown said after the game. “I mean, a lot of times you’re not going to be able to run good half-court sets against this team. They’re solid, they’re long, but if we can get out in the open court — which we did — (on) missed shots, we can push it up and get some advantages that way, it give(s) our guys a chance to attack.”

The speedy Shane Larkin darted around lumbering, unathletic seven-footer Brook Lopez, who acted as the sun in the team’s whizzing solar system. Lopez dished out four assists in the first half, including these two to a cutting Larkin.

Lopez, who finished with 22 points (8-15 FG) and seven rebounds, recorded back-to-back games with at least five assists for the first time in his career, and has more assists to Larkin (26) than any other Nets player, despite playing more minutes with six other teammates.

“Guys have just been doing a good job moving without the ball,” Lopez said. “I know I can trust guys to catch and finish it, and it’s something we’ve been working on a lot. I feel more and more confident each game being in position to make plays for my teammates. I draw attention, so I’ve been trying to get other guys going.”

Perhaps it’s Tony Brown, perhaps it’s personnel, perhaps it’s Tony Brown playing the personnel. But the unathletic, aging Nets of old were a distant memory Thursday night, and their spark provided both a blueprint for victory and Sean Marks with an idea of what a successful Nets team could look like.

Limiting Cleveland’s stars

The Nets were no match for James, but his supporting cast was largely absent. Irving scored just 13 points on 6-for-22 shooting. Kevin Love missed all five of his three-point attempts en route to an 11-point, 5-for-14 performance. The Cavaliers as a whole shot 35.6 percent without accounting for James’s dominant performance.

Irving took a steady diet of tough shots, forcing his own offense even in moments when a reset or a dish off to a teammate would have sufficed. One of Brown’s blocks came on Irving, who forced a tough look in transition when the team had a developing 3-on-2 opportunity.

Irving finished with four assists on the night, fewer than Brook Lopez (5).

The Nets also benefited from a bit of luck. The Cavaliers shot just 10-for-38 from three-point range, well below their season average, though the Nets contested the perimeter well. In that final 14-0 stretch, the Cavaliers missed ten consecutive shots, including seven mostly well-contested three-pointers.

The Nets have a lot of decisions to make, and a lot of players with uncertain contract statuses next year. But the Cavaliers win provided a glimpse of what the Nets can do when they play with the energy coach Brown asked for, and get a little bit of luck to help them out.

OK, now back to Cyberdust to see if LeBron is Dallas-bound.

More notes:

  • Lopez eclipsed Vince Carter for second in scoring all-time in Nets franchise history with his 22nd and final point of the night. “I mean, it’s an honor,” Lopez said when asked to reflect on that. “I played with Vince. He’s one of the all-time greats, no question a Hall of Famer. It is a huge honor.” Lopez then deferred credit, as is his wont. “I think it’s just kind of a testament to the guys I played with. (They) were great playmakers, got me the ball in positions where I can score easy, and each one was pretty much an assist for guys out there, guys like Devin (Harris), D-Will (Deron Williams), Joe (Johnson), all those guys I played with in my career.

  • Sean Kilpatrick had his first 0-fer from three-point range, missing all six of his three-point looks. His hot streak may be starting to wind down, but he’s still an effective player.

  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had one high-profile moment on defense, matching up one-on-one with LeBron James and drawing an offensive foul. “I kind of felt it coming,” Hollis-Jefferson noted. “The crowd started to get amped up, and I was like, ‘yeah, it’s about to be a one-on-one situation.’ So you do what you do, play defense, try to cut him off, try to turn him, and it just so happened I noticed he put his arm out. He’s a pretty strong guy, so the rest is history.”

  • Hollis-Jefferson also had one notoriously ugly shot — a 21-foot airball in the fourth quarter. “Every time an airball goes on, or something like that happens, I think about Kobe (Bryant) in the playoffs in his rookie year,” Hollis-Jefferson said, referring to Bryant’s infamous four airballs in a playoff game during his rookie season. “That’s kind of my get-over-everything situation whenever adversity hits. I’m like, dude, he’s one of the greatest players ever and he airballed. So you can’t hold on to that. You can’t let that mess up the rest of your game. You have to (think) next play, next possession.”

    Hollis-Jefferson followed up the airball with three consecutive layups and a made jumper listed at 16 feet, more in his range. “When I talked to (Kobe) when we were in L.A., he said ‘fall in love with the mid-range,” Hollis-Jefferson added. “So I think that’s where I’m going to be for a little while.”

  • Henry Sims’s hook shots didn’t look pretty, but he made a few big defensive stops in the fourth quarter, including one play where he forced Kyrie Irving into missing a tough layup without fouling him (though Irving obviously disagreed).

  • Nets center Willie Reed incited a bit of controversy with a since-deleted Instagram post, where Reed put up a photo with former Nets coach Lionel Hollins with the below caption:

    “Thank you for giving me a shot Coach Hollins and playing me. Making what was a dream into a reality. I’m appreciative of the opportunity. And even tho for some odd reason I haven’t played since you left really the fans know and around the league that I proved I belong. #ThankYouGod #Dreams2Reality #RookieYear #NoExcuses #LongLiveEmo”

    In an earlier post, Reed said he was “Tired of people all in my bubble tho, critiquing me on stuff I had to struggle for”, connecting it to a photo of him high-fiving coach Brown. After deleting the post, Reed retweeted praise of him from numerous fans and writers throughout the league.

    Reed played in 18 of a possible 22 games under Hollins (not including injury), averaging just under ten minutes per game. With Brown, Reed has registered more DNP-CD’s (18 games played, 16 DNP’s), and averaged slightly more playing time in games he did play (11.8 minutes per game).

    Reed, perhaps not coincidentally, was listed as inactive by Brown for Nets-Cavaliers, his first time on the inactive list since November 29. Since Reed was inactive, he was not asked to speak with the media following the game.