This was definitely one of those games headed in where I thought expectations had to be managed. While Cleveland has not been the league's best team through the first quarter of this season, they're still part of the Eastern Conference's elite, and the Nets have been exceptionally lousy defensively recently, giving up 105, 107 and a ghastly 130 points the past three games. There's no one on the Nets' roster that could even dream of matching up with LeBron James (I mean, few in this league can anyway), so I honestly thought if the Nets could keep things under 20, I would consider it a moral victory.
After the first quarter, I thought I wouldn't even get that satisfaction. The Nets, who were without Chris Douglas-Roberts, Tony Battie and Keyon Dooling, started the game cold from the field, and the Cavs came out scorching, paced by a quick 9 points for Shaquille O'Neal (16 points for the game) and Cleveland was off to a 30-22 start.
But the Nets managed to hang in this game throughout - even making a valiant comeback attempt in the game's final minute as Rafer Alston (20 points, 4-6 from three) drilled a three, stole the inbounds pass, and sank a second three, to cut the deficit to single digits as Cleveland was just looking to get off the floor with the win. There's no such thing as a moral victory, but a 99-89 loss to the Cavs when it could have been much, much worse, is better than nothing.
The Nets used the free throw line to great effect in the first half, going 18-23 from the line, compared with 8-13 for Cleveland. The also rode Brook Lopez, who was a force in the game's first 24 minutes with 20 points and 9 rebounds, and was staking his claim as the East's best center not named Dwight Howard. Unfortunately, Brook only scored 2 points and grabbed 6 rebounds the rest of the way, on just six field goal attempts. He only got two field goal attempts in the fourth quarter - TWO, when his team was down single digits and had a legit chance to steal a victory. I can't stress this enough - Brook Lopez has to get the ball as many times as possible, especially in crunch time.
Regardless of their poor use of Brook, the Nets showed some toughness last night, and even got physical with the Cavs. At the 3:48 mark in the fourth and the Cavaliers pulling away, Jamario Moon had a clear lane to the hoop and Devin Harris fouled him by grabbing him by the neck. The refs called a flagrant two and ejected Devin. Obviously, the league freaks out whenever someone gets grabbed by the neck on a layup/dunk attempt, but I thought it was a great, hard foul by Devin, the captain, who apparently dropped $1,500 the other night to take his teammates out to dinner in an effort to build camaraderie on the roster. You have to protect the basket in this league, though it was Devin's second flagrant foul called in the past week. I think the days of Chris Douglas-Roberts saying this team doesn't foul anyone hard are over.
It was bad timing for Harris too. After a poor shooting first half where he went 2-10 from the field, Devin starting hitting those stop and pops he perfected last year during his breakout season - shooting 5-8 the rest of the way and finishing with 22 points. Outside of Lopez's first half, and Alston's late fourth quarter surge, Harris didn't have much help offensively, as the fourth highest scorer was Courtney Lee, who finished with 8 points and another dreadful 3-14 shooting performance.
And as expected, the Nets had no answer for LeBron James, who actually looked like he was taking some plays off in the second and third quarters, en route to 23 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assist (and 6 turnovers). As the Nets were chipping away at the lead, cutting it as low as two points in the third quarter, LeBron always had an answer. At around the 3:17 mark in the third, Trenton Hassell had just missed a shot under the hoop and on the very next play, he fouled LeBron for the basket and the foul. Is there any better way to encapsulate this season? The plucky Nets player who probably has no business playing 35+ minutes a game, blows a chance to make the game closer, and the other's team superstar makes a killer play in response.
Check for some final thoughts after the jump.
- Rough night for the rookie Terrence Williams tonight. He finished with 1 point, and made he usual array of head scratching plays. After entering the game in the second quarter, he poorly set up Lopez with the shot clock expiring, but was bailed out when Brook made an incredible bank shot from below the free throw line. Then, Williams got suckered into a foul after biting on the head fake by Daniel Gibson. Then, at around the 8:15 mark, Williams put too much distance between himself and his man, Jamario Moon as he wrongly anticipated the ball being dumped into the post to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Instead, Mo Williams lobbed the ball to Moon who finished at the rim.
- In addition to the hard foul on Moon which earned him an ejection (I refuse to admonish Devin Harris for this), Devo also took a charge from LeBron the linebacker towards the end of the first half. These are the little things that Harris is starting to do that are huge. He's the captain of this team and is supposed to lead by example. If he's out there protecting the rim, and drawing charges, that's a positive example.
- Never was there a better example of why the Nets need better players starting game for them than Trenton Hassell and Josh Boone than tonight. With Courtney Lee continue to struggle from the outside, the Nets only have two options in Brook and Devin. Both carried this team tremendously in the first half, but somebody else has to become a consistent third option. Teams are just letting Boone catch the ball unchallenged from 10-feet because they know he won't and shouldn't take that shot. Hassell, for all of his pluck, is just a terrible finisher and outside of a game here and there where he happens to nail a couple of open jumpers, is not someone who should be getting major touches or minutes in a close games against a top opponent. Hopefully, when Yi returns next week, he can change the defensive looks other teams are giving the Nets right now.
- Also, on the subject on Boone, why did Kiki put him on Shaq in the opening quarter? Yeesh.
- And speaking of Kiki, some weird substituting down the stretch from the head coach. How do you have Devin Harris and Brook Lopez sitting at the same time with less than 7 minutes to play in the game?
- When teams are bad, it all comes down to fundies. At around the 10:31 mark of the fourth quarter, Devin Harris stole the ball and the Nets had a pretty decisive fast break developing. Harris passed off to Eduardo Najera, who got too cute with his pass to Terrence Williams, who made a bad catch on the pass and ended up losing it out of bounds. The Nets absolutely had to get the two points there.
- Finally, I know LeBron is king, and we're all supposed to want this guy here in Nets-land, but I don't think I realized until this season what a jerk this guy has become. First, he's the first one slamming Devin up against the padding after the flagrant on Moon - of course LeBron supporters will say he's defending his teammates, but come on now. Meanwhile, James is pitching a fit after every perceived non-call by refs. I know he wants to become the next Jordan, but maybe he can win a championship or six before he becomes so insufferable.