If Kiki Vandeweghe has an ounce of Stanley Kubrick in him, I hope at practice he sits the Nets down "Clockwork Orange" style - strapped in, eyelids clamped open, so they can rewatch their performance in the first quarter yesterday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because it was some of the best Nets basketball we've seen all season.
The Nets did a lot right in those first 12 minutes. They played crisply on the offensive end, totaling 26 points on 52 percent shooting, moving a lot without the ball, leading to some pretty-looking baskets like the backdoor cut by Brook Lopez which led to an alley-oop from Devin Harris at the 7:27 mark and then a thread-the-needle backdoor bounce pass from Brook to Chris Douglas-Roberts, which led to a reverse slam at the 4:46 mark. The Nets also played solid defensively, holding the Cavs to 19 points and 42 percent shooting in the quarter. LeBron James, didn't score the first of his game high 28 points (along with 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 blocks), until just past the 6 minute mark of the first. The Nets were getting beat up a bit inside by Zyldrunas Ilgauskus and Shaquille O'Neal, but overall, the first quarter just felt like a tremendous effort, and after beating the Knicks Wednesday night in a game where they controlled from the second quarter on, I hope I'm not overstating things when I say I feel like maybe this team is starting to come together, even though they ultimately fell to Cleveland 94-86.
At 3-30 for the season now, moral victories feel like overtime losses in hockey - the Nets should get partial credit. While I petition the NBA for such a rule adjustment, consider that even when Cleveland stormed back in the second half, and had a 12-point lead early in the fourth quarter, the Nets wouldn't go away, like they've done in similar games this season (see last week's loss to Oklahoma City). A free throw by Yi Jianlian, who was not at his best, shooting 2-13, but still managed to total 11 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks, cut the Cleveland lead to 81-77 at the 4:39 mark. Cleveland followed that up with an 8-0 run, capped off with a LeBron James layup and free throw with 2:40 left, where he managed to get the bucket despite CDR and Courtney Lee hanging on the King (though LeBron also looked to push CDR off him during the continuation).
Yes, the Nets still had a hard time rebounding the ball. This time, they were outrebounded 52-38 and they gave up 16 on the offensive end, including 4 to the always annoying Anderson Varejao. And yes, after the hot shooting start to the game, the Nets end up shooting 33 percent for the remaining three quarters and 38.7 percent for the game. The Nets bench continues to be a black hole for the offense, only totaling 8 points on 3-13 shooting.
But here are some positives. The Nets were one Courtney Lee point away from having all five starters in double digit scoring for the second consecutive game, showing that this group of guys is starting to get the handle of playing together. I was impressed with how, with their offense struggling in the third, the Nets rode Brook Lopez in the third quarter, who totaled 10 points for the period, and got to the free throw line 10 times (converting 8).
The difference between the Nets and Cavs yesterday boils down to one very great player, doing just enough to carry his team over the top. LeBron James is that guy, and while I continue to have my doubts that he'll leave Cleveland at the end of the season, he just commands so much attention and effort, that it allows players like Varejao and Mo Williams to total 15 and 18 points respectively. It's because Cleveland has LeBron James, Daniel Gibson, who's struggling for playing time, can hit a dagger of a three-pointer at the 3:05 mark in the fourth to stretch Cleveland's lead back to 9, as the Nets were desperately trying to hang in this game.
More thoughts after the jump.
- So if Yi's game is to continue its evolution, his next lesson is to get more consistent with his jump shot, when teams are playing him to drive. In his first few games back from injury, Yi was able to get a lot of his scoring done from the paint, because teams were waiting on him to shoot jumpers. Cleveland was the first team to adjust to Yi's change of gameplan and as a result, he struggled for the first time.
- I know I shouldn't get excited by the Nets playing fundamentally well, but this play featured some of the best transition D I've seen the team play this year off the teardrop miss by Courtney Lee.
- The replays will only show how LeBron blocked CDR's layup at the 3:57 mark, but he could've had been called for the foul if everyone wasn't so enamored with James' physical prowess, and he looked like he reinjured Douglas-Robert's ankle to boot. CDR was noticeably limping the rest of the game, despite waving Kiki off when he wanted to replace him. He also looked a few steps slow on defense the rest of the game.
- Poor Josh Boone gets booed now when he shoots jumper. Can't say I blame the crowd considering how Boone looked like he sidearmed it.
- Kiki does a lot of little things with substitutions which I love, like subbing in Yi with 4.7 seconds at the end of the first on the offensive end to get another shooter on the floor. But he threw a rotation out there at the end of the third which was a head scratcher for me. With the Nets trailing 5 and struggling offensively, he went with Keyon Dooling, Courtney Lee, Trenton Hassell, Josh Boone and Tony Battie. For those playing the home game, that's just two out of five players with any offensive ability whatsoever, and one of which (Dooling) was struggling from the field. I would have used TWill or someone else other than Hassell there personally.
- Consider we got treated to some more of LeBron's ridiculous step-dancing at the end of the game, I thought I would show a couple of plays that demonstrate how LeBron can actually be stopped on the defensive end. Meanwhile, I think this guy is becoming more unlikeable than Kobe Bryant if that's possible.