One Nets player couldn’t help but chuckle. “So no one else gets changed in the locker room after a loss, huh?” he said.
Seems that way in these darker days. The team’s end-of-bench players made brief appearances, as well as Brook Lopez, Jarrett Jack, Mason Plumlee, and Joe Johnson, who spoke with the media following the team’s 89-81 loss to the Boston Celtics Wednesday night. But players bopped in and out to the team’s private back area after the game, staying as little as possible and as long as necessary. Kevin Garnett, who after 20 years in the NBA speaks whenever he wants, and almost never after a loss, was long gone. Ditto for Deron Williams, who’d left the game early in the second quarter and ducked out of the arena for good midway through the fourth, according to a report from Andy Vasquez of NorthJersey.com.
The ducking and diving reflects a startling change from the expectations the team once boasted. The Nets entered each of their first two seasons in Brooklyn with championship aspirations, only to fall well short both times. This time around, they tempered their hopes, only looking for a top-four slot in the Eastern Conference. Now, they’ll be lucky not to tumble out of a bottom-four playoff spot, and everyone is seeking answers.
“It’s definitely a step backwards,” Lopez monotoned about his team’s effort in the loss, intentionally avoiding eye contact, boring a hole in the floor with his gaze. “There was a lull.”
Yes, the Nets technically still hold the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, after the loss dropped them to 16-19 on the season. But the fun — if you can call being three games under .500 in the Eastern Conference “fun” — ends there. After entertaining the NBA’s easiest schedule over the first 35 games, the Nets now face a brutal stretch: six games in nine days, a three-game West Coast trip, a five-game stretch against teams with a combined record of 100-48, a brief respite against the Knicks, and the first three games of an eight-game road trip.
And that’s just through the All-Star Break.
Meanwhile: the Detroit Pistons? Won their seventh straight game after waiving embattled forward Josh Smith, and sit just four games behind Brooklyn. Ditto for the Charlotte Hornets, who have won three straight. The Celtics, who have won two of three games against the Nets this season, are only three games back. The playoffs, which should be a foregone conclusion for a team with Brooklyn’s talent and payroll, are anything but. To make matters worse, they don’t hold the rights to their draft pick to enjoy the fruits of the lottery.
The Nets could’ve used a victory against a sub-.500 Celtics team at home, and yet by the end, it never seemed like they had a chance.
“There’s no excuse for (the effort),” Plumlee said. “That’s something you can control. The ball might not always go in, but the plays that stand out to me are when they take it out-of-bounds and get a layup for (Jae) Crowder. The ball is rolling down the floor, and a couple of us aren’t even running. Those are inexcusable plays. We have to own it, make sure it doesn’t happen again, and move forward.”
“This was a tough one,” Johnson admitted, later adding a simple diagnosis: “we couldn’t score the basketball. We couldn’t get stops.”
Three years ago, Brooklyn acquired Johnson in the offseason to form “Brooklyn’s Backcourt,” a tandem that could stand up against any team in the league. Pomp and parades aside, the analysis went thusly: at best, they’d make each other exponentially better and compete for a championship; at worst, they’d become the Brooklyn Hawks, doomed to a half-decade of second-round exits like the Atlanta Hawks were with the ball-dominating Johnson running the show.
Somehow, it’s become far worse: at least those Hawks, and the Nets of recent years, were decently competitive, pushing playoff teams to the brink. These Nets are depressingly predictable: they’re 2-13 against teams above .500, and 14-6 against teams below it. They take care of enough of the bad teams, and outside of two seemingly anomalous victories against San Antonio and Chicago, get dismantled by the upper tier. Through 35 games, the Nets have scored just a tick under 100 points per possessions, ranking just ahead of the lowly Knicks and seventh-worst in the league, and their slow pace and increasingly listless play means fewer and fewer points on the board.
Brooklyn would take being those moderately competitive Hawks in a heartbeat, and they’d trade their left asset to be these Hawks, who currently lead the Eastern Conference with a 27-8 record. These Hawks look eerily like the team the Nets thought they’d be last season: a dominant top-to-bottom team that lacks a superstar but makes up for it with crisp team basketball. The Nets are the opposite; a top-heavy team that leans heavily on isolation scorers that has lacked cohesion due to various injuries and trade rumors.
Ironically, the only piece of these Hawks the Nets have is Atlanta’s sure-to-be low first-round draft pick, which the Nets promised to swap in the trade that netted them Johnson in the first place. If the Nets tumble into the lottery, the Hawks will get the spoils. 35 games into a rapidly mediocritizing season, it’s hard to see a turnaround on the horizon that would change Brooklyn’s fortunes.
“At this point there’s really no excuse,” Plumlee added. “We have to get it going.”