BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Facing the team that decimated them, destroyed them, combusted them, and all other words that loosely mean “holy crap, Atlanta beat the snot out of Brooklyn Wednesday night” them, the Brooklyn Nets made up for lost possessions Friday night, taking down the Atlanta Hawks in a game marred by ugliness and inconsistency at Barclays Center AKA The Black House in Brooklyn. The Nets got key contributions down the stretch from Brook Lopez and Deron Williams — Lopez with seven fourth-quarter points and a key block after getting posterized by Brook Lopez that essentially sealed the game, and Williams with four free throws in the final minute to extend a 90-89 lead to the eventual final score of 94-89.
In a game that was tied at the end of each for the first three quarters, Brooklyn relied on contributions from multiple key players, contributions that went beyond scoring.
Yes, a cursory look at the box score — and Deron Williams’ first-half shooting numbers — would indicate that this was a game led by Brooklyn’s “Big Three” of Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez. To some degree, that’s true; the three-man tandem combined for 62 of Brooklyn’s 90 points, six of their nine three-pointers, with only one other player — backup center Andray Blatche — touching double digits in the scoring margins.
But to pin this victory on three players misses the full picture. While those three players held up their end of the bargain, pouring in points in both halves, it was the contributions from every player on the roster that resulted in this victory.
Reggie Evans’ contribution was the easiest to spot. “20 rebounds tonight,” Williams said bluntly after the game. “Just his energy and intensity on both ends of the floor, it means so much to us.” Indeed, Evans’s strengths go beyond the box score — 20 rebounds aside, Evans entangled with Zaza Pachulia and Josh Smith all night, throwing his body around like a human pinball in the hopes of limiting their off-ball effectiveness as much as possible. Pachulia struggled through a quiet night before getting ousted with six fouls in 25 minutes; Smith, outside of some wow-inducing plays, was rarely able to get and take advantage of low post position against Evans and resorted to shooting from outside — his biggest weakness. He finished the night a pedestrian 5-15 from the field and a -5 in 37 minutes.
Carlesimo piled on the Evans praise: “He was doing a hell of a job on Josh (Smith), rebounding, and causing his usual havoc on the floor. He got his minutes because of how well he played.”
Bogans, who I’ve discussed here as a bit of a “role star” when he plays with the team’s best players, showed again why his capacity as a lineup fulcrum is so crucial to this team’s success. Bogans ended the game with just four field goal attempts, but hit two corner threes (one from each corner), played admirable defense on his assignments, and hit a crucial late-game fast-break layup by leaking out after a Reggie Evans steal. In the crunch moments of the game, Carlesimo elected to go with Bogans at the wing spot over Gerald Wallace, perhaps because of Wallace’s injury, but more likely because Bogans had played more effectively. “Keith was a key contributor tonight,” Carlesimo said plainly, noting that Bogans held onto his playing time because he didn’t make little mistakes that other guards made.
But don’t ask Deron Williams to compliment Bogans. Williams cracked on Bogans with joke after joke throughout the entire post-game availability, and merely deadpanned into recorders that “even Keith Bogans has been a small bright spot,” before leaning out to make sure Bogans heard him. (He did.)
Blatche’s role was simple — mimic the offensively gifted and defensively improving Brook Lopez. With Lopez out of the game, the Nets needed a third player to split the scoring load, and at least in the first half, It worked to perfection. “That (center) position has been unbelievable (for us),” Carlesimo glowed. “Most games they split the 48 minutes, and you add up their points and rebounds, and look at their percentages, we’re getting tremendous production out of our five-spot all year.”
In some sense, Johnson, Lopez, and Williams were as much role players as Bogans, Blatche, and Evans — it’s just that the former trio’s role was to score, and the latter trio’s role was to fill in the blanks, Evans by rebounding, Bogans by spacing, defending, and hitting his few-and-far-between shots, and Blatche by replicating Lopez’s talents when Lopez needed a breather.
(It bears noting that Lopez, in addition to his scoring gifts, really has shown considerable improvement on the defensive end. He’s quicker, using his length more effectively, and as Deron Williams gushed after the game, his help-side defense has been great.)
For three quarters, it helped the Nets play the Hawks — an oddly sudden nemesis — to a draw. In the fourth, it helped them take the victory — five rebounds from Evans, three rebounds and some smart defense from Blatche, the key layup and defense from Bogans, all while The Big 3 carried the scoring load, scoring 16 of the team’s 20 points in the fourth quarter.
With the victory, the Brooklyn Nets are now 24-16 and two games behind the New York Knicks, who happen to be their cross-bridge rival, a team they’ve declared borough war on (depending on who in the organization you ask), and their next opponent Monday night. Gerald Wallace doesn’t appear to care (“I’m from Alabama”), Joe Johnson tries to play it down (“It’s just another game”), and Deron Williams at least acknowledges its importance (“it’s a big game for us”). The Nets have to win this game to have a chance at breaking any potential playoff tiebreakers — otherwise the Knicks, who would then hold a 3-1 record against Brooklyn in-season, would take the division in the event of a tie. Nothing sudden about that rivalry.