This is what rock bottom looks like.
“You act like we’re one of the better teams in the East, or in the league, (and) we’re not,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We’re right down there with them, Philadelphia. We just have a few more wins. That’s all it is.”
It was a brutally honest assessment of what’s become a brutal team in their most brutal moment: a 90-88 home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers (6-29), in which they shot 3-for-16 from three-point range and committed 17 turnovers. The Nets were out-scored 26-17 in the final frame, allowing the 76ers to shoot 11-for-16 from the field, with 16 points in the paint.
The Nets didn’t enter this season with championship expectations. At best, they hoped to compete for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
But they certainly didn’t want this game to be their “at worst,” with the ball ending up in Brook Lopez’s hands 26 feet from the basket, with the Nets down two and just 3.2 seconds to make a play after Brooklyn squandered a double-digit second-half lead.
“I was the last resort,” Lopez said. “It shouldn’t have come down to that. There’s no way it should’ve come down to that.”
With five seconds before the whistle sounds, the Nets needed to make a play. But each passing second recorded another failed option.
“(We had Jarrett) Jack going over the top, if he was open, hit him.”
The Nets ran Jarrett Jack over a Mirza Teletovic screen, and if he was open, the Nets wanted to get him the ball. But Michael Carter-Williams trailed behind Jack, allowing him to slither past Teletovic without making contact.
Anderson could’ve tried to hit Jack rolling to the rim for a game-tying layup, but with the 6’7″ Carter-Williams on the 6’3″ Jack, Jerami Grant guarding Teletovic nearby, and Nerlens Noel still in the paint, it would’ve had to be a picture-perfect pass. Besides, Anderson’s eyes were focused on Johnson, Brooklyn’s crunch-time stalwart three seasons and counting.
“They pretty much just doubled, especially when I came off.”
“We Iso’d a couple of times, and they start to get into Joe (Johnson), or send two guys at him, and we’ve got to help Joe out.”
Nearly two years ago, Johnson faced off against the same defender in a situation like this. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, then with the Bucks, tried to hold Johnson in check as he crossed left-to-right-to-left to no avail, as Johnson pulled up and buried a game-winning shot in overtime.
“All I need is just an inch of separation or just some room to see the rim,” Johnson said about that shot back in October 2013, when discussing his crunch-time theatrics.
But Johnson didn’t even get that inch this time around. Like Carter-Williams had before him, Mbah a Moute trailed Johnson around the screen, directing Johnson into 76ers forward Robert Covington. Covington, who guarded the inbounds, had his back to Anderson from the beginning, instead fixating his eyes on Johnson.
If it was as if the 76ers knew exactly where the Nets wanted to throw the ball, it’s because they probably did: Johnson has taken the majority of Brooklyn’s shots in crunch time over the past three years.
“We had Mirza (Teletovic) flaring … and then obviously Alan (Anderson) had the countdown on him.”
The play might’ve been set up all along for Teletovic, who was flare-screened by Brook Lopez soon after Teletovic had set the two screens. But Lopez didn’t create enough separation between Teletovic and Jerami Grant, and Teletovic too was crowded, unable to receive an inbounds pass running away from Anderson.
After a breakout year as a shooter last season, Teletovic has struggled to convert his looks, shooting just 39.1 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three-point range in 2014-2015. The best remedy to a shooting slump is to keep shooting, and Hollins trusted Teletovic with a potential game-winning assignment. But the Nets just weren’t able to get him the ball, and running out of time, they were down to their last option.
“We had a number of options. … (Anderson) had to throw it to whoever was open, and then (Lopez) definitely tried to make a play.”
With may-day approaching after three failed screens and little misdirection, Lopez shot up towards Anderson, extending his left arm away from Nerlens Noel to catch the ball, as the only player left who had a chance.
The option was doomed from the start. The seven-footer, who has never made a three-pointer in the regular season, caught a wide pass from Alan Anderson one-handed, spun counterclockwise to the middle of the floor, performed a ball-fake against the long and talented Noel to no avail, and flung a contested, fallaway three-pointer wide right, officially listed at 27 feet away but might as well have been from the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk.
It was a rough end to an otherwise solid night for Lopez, who finished with 18 points, six rebounds, and two blocks on 9-17 shooting.
But after allowing an and-one layup to Tony Wroten that put the 76ers up 88-86 — the Nets would never lead again — and getting stuck with the ball at the wrong place and wrong time, Lopez was forced only to look at only the night’s failures.
“We’re honestly playing down to these teams these last few games,” Lopez said. “We’re better than this, and we’re doing it to ourselves. And we have to be better than this for the entirety of the game.”
It should’ve never come down to Lopez taking that final shot, because it never should’ve come down to a final shot at all.
“When we executed and made good decisions, and defended, and rebounded, we were ahead. Soon as we relaxed and made some bad decisions on offense, made some bad decisions on defense, they came back.”
Now, the Nets can only look ahead, and the road is ugly. 13 of the team’s 17 games before the All-Star break (and the trade deadline) come against teams slated to be in the playoffs, and that’s not including tomorrow night’s contest against the Detroit Pistons, who had won seven straight games before barely losing to the Atlanta Hawks, the Eastern Conference’s best team, Friday night.
If the Nets struggle to take down one of the league’s worst teams in their own building, they’ll have to right this ship fast if they want to have any chance of competing over the next month.
“We have to stay confident,” Lopez added. “It’s been a very up-and-down season for us. We’ve had lots of glimpses for small stretches of our potential. We just have to be consistent. And I’ve said that numerous times this season, but we absolutely need to be consistent. We’ve had a lot of different situations, different groups on the floor, and we just all have to get on the same page.”