Blowing An Audition for Relevance

Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

It’s not often that a team gets a chance to play a meaningful game late in a season after being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Maybe you might play spoiler to a hated conference contender or win a great “moral victory,” but usually the players on those teams are waiting to crack open a beer for a matinee baseball game or hit the links for a morning of golf.

The New Jersey Nets, however, were given an opportunity to buck that trend a month ago, when ESPN gave its Pistons-Pacers coverage the hook in favor of a standoff between the two trade-acquisition dandies, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, and their less important teams. So what’s the significance?

Last night’s game was, in no simpler terms, an audition for the Nets. I’ve ranted before about the Nets’ astounding obscurity, suggesting that completing a trade for Anthony was bigger than basketball — it would be the first step to getting this Nets franchise back on the map — so when the team was rewarded with its first opportunity to play on national television in more than two years, it was imperative that the Nets took advantage of that exposure to prove that they are no joke, that they can compete with teams from the league’s better half.

Well, the Nets botched that tryout. They didn’t go down in flames William Hung style, but they certainly didn’t impress the people they needed to move. Basically, they fizzled with the mediocrity of the year-in-year-out Charlotte Bobcats. Those who already knew about the Nets came away saying, “That was a good try.” The doubters? They’re still convinced the Nets suck.

When the Nets jumped out to an early lead, they definitely put some people on notice. They lay the groundwork by jumping out to a double-digit lead on the media-darling Knicks, who are under more intense scrutiny than virtually any team not located in Los Angeles. Realistically, though, this is probably a close recreation of what Nets-ignorant viewers were thinking:

“Who’s this bushy-haired fellow tearing the Knicks a new one?”

“Why doesn’t Anthony Morrow ever miss a shot?”

“This Travis Outlaw guy must be making less than $1 million this season because he’s terrible. He’s definitely not getting paid $35 million over the next five seasons — that would be ridiculous!”

Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s not as if I’m trying to intimate that fans who aren’t familiar with the Nets are dumb. The media coverage of the Nets is so sparse on a national level that it would be unrealistic to expect that the casual fan familiarize himself with Nets basketball.

When the Nets had torched the Knicks for 68 first-half points, things were looking up. But what those new viewers were about to experience was something Nets enthusiasts are all too aware of: the textbook New Jersey second-half meltdown. Some might attribute it to resilience on the part of the Knicks, but this goes well with the Nets’ obscurity: people realize they’re bad, but they don’t see just how bad they really are.

The manner in which the Nets systematically handed their lead away to the Knicks was very depressing and didn’t leave a fine taste in the mouths of NBA fans. At one point, Anthony Carter assisted on three straight baskets to Shelden Williams in what was one of the most pathetic stretches of defense in league history. That certainly wouldn’t have made me take interest in the Nets moving forward.

Still, with the lead gone, Williams made things interesting down the stretch by putting the team on his back — he was in pure superstar mode. In a span of under three minutes, Deron did the following: (1) made two free throws; (2) made a layup, got fouled, and hit the free throw; (2) made a midrange jumper; and (4) made a another layup, got fouled again, and hit the free throw to put the Nets up three at the end of that series.

Things then came back down to Earth, and the Knicks won the game after Williams bricked a wide-open 12-foot jumper that would have tied the game.

The Nets failed.

It doesn’t matter that the game was close. It doesn’t matter that they led by a lot in the first half. It doesn’t matter that Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Anthony Morrow all played spectacular basketball. No one’s going to remember anything except the condemning result. The proverbial ‘L’ on the forehead, if you will.

What could have been a hypersensationalized win over a crosstown rival turned out to be nothing but an assumed loss. What could have put the league on notice ended in shame and regret.

Now the season really is over for the Nets. It’s time to start building for next year. All they can do is hope it won’t be another two years before they get to showcase themselves again to more than their NBA-worst viewership.