The play from last night that best sums up the current predicament the Nets are facing in the closing weeks of the 2010-11 season came with just a shade over two minutes left in the game. Despite an 11-0 run by the Orlando Magic earlier in the fourth, through the handy-work of Kris Humphries, Anthony Morrow and Sasha Vujacic, the Nets found themselves within six points when they started to employ the Hack-a-Howard strategy, putting Dwight Howard on the line while they still could without giving a possession back to the Magic. The strategy initially worked. Dwight Howard went one out of two and the Nets answered with a two pointer by Jordan Farmar to cut the lead to four. Howard was fouled again, and missed another free throw. But rather then continue to chip away, that’s when the game slipped away.
The offensive rebound off a missed free throw is one of the harder plays to pull off in basketball, especially in late game situations when the defensive team is focusing even mores on securing a potential board. Everything was set up right for the Nets – the Magic’s worst FT shooter was on the line and rebounding-machine Kris Humphries – he who’s grabbing more than 32 percent of all potential defensive boards while he’s on the court – was in the lower blocks waiting to pounce. But Hump mistimed his jump for the ball, it slipped loose and into the hands of Ryan Anderson, the former Net who is 31st at his position in rebound rating. The ball found its way to Chris Duhon in the corner, who was only playing because of an injury to Jameer Nelson, and Duhon, probably one of the worst NBA rotation players in the league, drilled the three – making it a four-point swing and eight-point lead for Orlando with about two minutes to go. The game was iced.
What made this play stand out to me, besides how monumentally back-breaking it was, was the fact that despite how mathematically improbable that outcome was – Hump being outboarded by a rebound-averse big, and the dagger being delivered by a player who has a PER on the level of Stephen Graham this season – the play still occurred because the Nets failed to execute when they needed to most. When this team plays without Deron Williams against one of the league’s elite team like Orlando, the gap in talent is just so vast, that common sense and statistical probability just go out the window. If there’s an opportunity for the Nets to botch a play during these games, expect the team to seize on that opportunity – otherwise this team would probably have 10-15 more wins this season. It’s what separates good from bad, talent from talent-lacking. The Nets, in their current state, are just a collection of players who can individually go off for good games, but as a group are not very good. They have a career back-up in Farmar playing 40+ minutes, and career bench sparkplugs Vujacic and Morrow playing 36 minutes each. Their best bench option is Travis Outlaw (at least last night) and though that might have made sense two years ago, it doesn’t anymore. They have a back-up center who’s more than 7-feet-tall and has attempted 74 percent – 74 PERCENT – of his field goals from outside of 10-feet this season. This current collection of players just looks terrible folks, and bad things happen to bad teams.
And that’s not even considering Brook Lopez’s game. I partly joked in the pregame thread yesterday that last night’s game was going to spur the Lopez vs Howard debate, especially with Howard’s impending free agency in 2012. Lopez has had himself an excellent March offensively, scoring 22.3 points per game and even reaching double digits in rebounding three times (which is pathetic for a seven-footer, but a boon for Brook). But he last hit 20 points on Monday night against the Pacers, taking him 20 shots to do it while getting absolutely torched by his inexplicable nemesis Roy Hibbert, and after grabbing 10 rebounds against the Wizards on Sunday, he grabbed nine collectively on Monday and Wednesday – PG numbers. That brings us to last night’s game against Howard which was an utter embarrassment: 10 points, while only attempting 8 field goals and two rebounds. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily hard on him, but it seems like since the team’s post DWill meltdown against the Wizards, Lopez is hanging it up for the remainder of the season. It’s as if a lightbulb has switched off and Lopez decided after being initially inspired by the Williams acquisition, with DWill now on the sidelines in a suit, he’s not interested in being the “man” for the last few weeks of the season, and he’d rather hang out with Ryan Anderson afterwards and compare their Disney princess figurine collections. Though Anderson, at the very least, can grab a rebound when his team desperately needs it.