A Futile Effort: Pistons 103, Nets 99

Paul Pierce, Kyle Singler, Greg Monroe
Paul Pierce (AP)
Paul Pierce, Kyle Singler, Greg Monroe
Paul Pierce hit a key three late, but it wasn’t enough to complete the Nets’ comeback.

What once appeared was to be another ho-hum blowout for an indifferent Brooklyn Nets team lacking the services of a key player turned into a furious comeback attempt that just couldn’t come through. Nets fans justifiably aching, clawing to assign definite blame in a close loss will point to Andray Blatche’s two missed free throws with the Nets down 5 in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Others will lament the lack of an obvious foul call on a Deron Williams drive that, upon replay review, cost Brooklyn a key possession in the final minute.

(By the way, most people in the NBA community support the use of replay review in the name of getting things right. That makes it all the more painful when an official reviews possession and has to overlook a severe injustice done to the game with his hands behind his back just because fouls aren’t reviewable. I know the reasons for this, but it’s frustrating to see officials given the tools to get things right have to own what they did very wrong.)

What really happened in Auburn Hills tonight, however, was reminiscent of the Nets’ signature stench, in which uninspired play over the course of an entire game gives way to yet another L. The Nets were on the second half of a home-road back-to-back, as if that’s a decent excuse for the listless, lifeless play they exhibited in the second and third quarters. Detroit bigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond shoved and bullied the Nets around inside, as the Pistons gobbled up rebound after rebound for second-chance points. When Brooklyn wasn’t surrendering open layups and three-pointers, it was fouling relentlessly; Detroit possessions without points in the second quarter were few and far between.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the stellar play of a few Nets, namely Williams (22 points, 9 assists in 41 minutes), Blatche (20 points, 12 rebounds), and Mirza Teletovic, whose sweet shooting from downtown (5-of-6 from three) catalyzed the team’s eventual comeback attempt. Brooklyn’s offense was at no point terrible tonight, as it has been on and off throughout this entire season, but it simply couldn’t keep up with a furious Pistons output against a gilded saloon door.

During the fourth quarter in particular, the Nets initiated most possessions with Williams or Joe Johnson in the post — not necessarily to shoot but to get the defense moving and try to create open cutting lanes and looks from beyond the arc. Brett Koremenos wrote at Grantland today about the value of a post-up, concluding, as with most things in basketball, that it’s a mixed bag. The player in the post has to be adept enough to make a key pass when the shot isn’t there rather than forcing a contested look.

With Williams, this tends to work for the Nets. With Johnson, the results are more questionable. I’ve noticed that when Johnson believes he has a one-on-one advantage against a defender while backing him down, he has already decided that’s how the possession is going to go. This tunnel vision makes Johnson ignore a number of open cutters and cripples the offense. (On an related note, Johnson is markedly uncomfortable making bounce passes out of pick-and-rolls. Several times he refused to pass to an open Kevin Garnett when Garnett’s defender hedged on the screen.)

The Nets’ comeback from, at some points, more than 20 down, featured some promising play. Whether a team expected to be a championship contender should highly value promise I will leave up to you. Regardless, the Nets sprung to life on the defensive end, dismantling pick-and-rolls, playing fast, aware weakside defense, and letting Josh Smith shoot the ball on just about every touch. Drummond was a non-factor in the fourth quarter, open jumpshots were rare, and Detroit needed Monroe to stop the bleeding with some excellence in the post.

The improved defense led to a potent enough offense to shave the lead. Brooklyn got out in semi-transition (let’s be honest: that’s as fast as they go) and created easier opportunities. If you asked coach Jason Kidd about the rally, though, he’d likely bemoan the extent to which he had to play Williams, Johnson, Pierce, and Blatche in the second half after playing the day before — all for a loss. I applaud his commitment to trying to win the game, but if the team’s M.O. is to spare the team’s key players debilitating minutes, tonight’s game was a step back for more than one reason.

It’s probably not wise for the Nets to concern themselves with much beyond the game at hand, but Brooklyn had a pretty easy schedule over a seven-game stint that began tonight, with the one roadblock a matchup vs. the Pacers in Brooklyn. They probably needed to win this game to take advantage. After those seven games, they go on the road for a brutal three games against the Pacers, Spurs, and Thunder. They’ll be very lucky to come out of that mess with one win.

This game probably goes differently if Brook Lopez plays, and at some point the Nets are going to have to start making hard decisions about playing key guys through injuries for short-term gain vs. the long-term outlook. I will say this: tonight’s comeback effort was a much better way to break the team’s winning streak than a 20-point drubbing.