First, the good. Joe Johnson and Deron Williams finally did that thing we were waiting for them to do — play well at the same time — and yet, their “times” came separately in the contest. That’s not a criticism, just a recognition of the game flow. Williams came on early, scoring a variety of scoops and jumpers, spreading the wealth around (including a perfect alley-oop to Brook Lopez in the first quarter off a broken playset), and finishing with the team lead in scoring. Joe Johnson caught fire late, scoring sixteen points in the fourth quarter to upgrade from “another decent game” to “unleashing the final hellscape on poor Cleveland”.
Though some may disagree, this wasn’t the breakout game we’ve been waiting for from Joe Johnson. That’s going to come when he plays well over the entire game instead of exploding at the end. But it was definitely the quarter we’ve been waiting for. Watching Joe Johnson (sometimes it feels weird calling him just “Joe” or “Johnson”) finally start to hit his shots in that fourth quarter, watching those threes leave his hand and finally believe they weren’t even going to touch rim, then watching them splash and hearing the crowd go wild, it was just awesome. Awesome Joe Johnson.
Overall, the Brooklyn Nets finally grooved in their down-screen, flare-screen, curl-screen offense. Every player that played more than thirty seconds recorded at least one assist, and even the one that had a rough shooting night (point plug C.J. Watson) pedaled the floor with purpose and hit one of the game-clinching three-pointers late in the fourth quarter. They poured it on inside, finding easy points on cuts and dump-downs throughout the game.
Even with a clicking offense, the game highlighted everything the Nets need vast improvement on, particularly their still-porous interior defense. They allowed an unconscionable 53 shot attempts from within five feet, including 42 right at the rim. They allowed Anderson Varejao to Brazilian bomb them into submission, over, and over, and over again. Varejao dropped 21 points (half his team’s total) & 11 boards (of his team’s 15 total) in the first half, and by the final buzzer had hit sixteen field goals, 15 in the restricted area. He nearly matched the entire Nets team with 11 offensive rebounds, and had over half of his own team’s overall grabs. He finished with 35 points and 18 rebounds, both highs against Brooklyn this season.
Coach Avery Johnson and Brook Lopez both espoused praises for the backup tandem, Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans, for their comparative mastery of the team’s defensive principles. It was palpable in tonight’s game; after the Nets allowed the Cavaliers to drop 30 effortless points in the first quarter, Evans and Blatche played on a string, covering each other’s back constantly. Neither Blatche nor Evans possess physical skills like Lopez, but the Cavs shot 5-20 in that critical second quarter and just 3-11 from within the restricted area.
The two have built an open communication early, and it’s not just tonight. Through six games, with Evans and Blatche on the floor, the Brooklyn Nets give up 40.7% shooting, 30.1 rebounds, and just 70.6 points per 48 minutes pace-adjusted. With Lopez & Humphries, those numbers jump to 43.3% shooting, 40.1 rebounds, and 93.1 points per 48 pace-adjusted. Part of it is matchups, and both players are still limited by significant weaknesses. But the way they’ve adjusted to Avery’s defensive system early is a testament to that twosome tandem.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say this at least once: Kyrie Irving is an unbelievable point guard before you consider the fact that he’s seven years old. Varejao was probably the best Cavs player last night, but there were a half-dozen moments where Kyrie made basketball stand still, then flipped the court on its side just to toy with it. His ballhandling skills should be illegal and his court vision and understanding is staggering. He does things at 20 years old with a basketball in his hands that more polished professionals couldn’t even think.
But that aside, against a poor team, the positives outweigh the negatives and the Brooklyn Nets win by double digits. Hopefully ho-hum Now the Nets have a major test in two days: after beating the cushion on their schedule, after they were a 22-minute collapse from being 5-1, the Nets take on the Boston Celtics Thursday night, a division rival and legitimate competitor.
Should be fun!