BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Well after Saturday night’s game, Kevin Garnett sat at his locker, composed, ready to speak with roughly a dozen media members. It was a unique sight in this young season: in every home game thus far, Garnett has enjoyed a seat at the podium moments after the game, beads of sweat still dripping from his scalp.
But Garnett eschewed the podium, for reasons unclear. Perhaps he needed to blow off some steam after a crushing home loss. Perhaps he needed time to gather his thoughts, perhaps because it was a chance for the Nets to get back on track and prove to the NBA again that they can hang with the best, a chance they squandered in the second half. But regardless of the reasoning, this loss precipitated a change in Garnett’s post-game routine; this loss hurt just a little more than the others.
A couple of miscues, loose balls, missed shots can change the course of an entire basketball game, and in familiar fashion, the miscues came down on Brooklyn’s side. Against an undefeated Indiana Pacers team, a team boasting the league’s finest defense by a wide margin, the Nets were slivers away from victory, only to see the victory slither away in the final moments.
The Nets did produce. Let that not be lost in the loss. They scored an even 91 points on 91 possessions, a full 11 points more than the Pacers have allowed per possession this season. They played about as fine an offensive game as the Pacers will allow, exploiting their one defensive weakness and hitting eight three-pointers, most of the spot-up variety.
They got solid contributions from Deron Williams (17 points, 10 assists), Joe Johnson (17 points, 6-10 shooting), Brook Lopez (16 points, 7 rebounds) and Paul Pierce (15 points, eight rebounds, four assists). With sixth man Andrei Kirilenko sidelined with back spasms, the Nets bench still outscored the Pacers bench, getting solid contributions from Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, and rookie Mason Plumlee.
Coach Jason Kidd drew up a picture-perfect play that got Nets guard Joe Johnson, the clutch machine, a wide-open look that could have tied the game.
Johnson didn’t even see anything special in the Pacers’ vaunted defense. “I wouldn’t say that they were that tough defensively,” Johnson said in the locker room of the league’s best defense.
“We moved the basketball, set picks, and got inside the paint,” he later added. “Then, we would make plays and get pretty much what we wanted. Defensively, they were nothing special. We just couldn’t get the stop that we needed.”
It just wasn’t enough against what’s arguably the league’s best team, the NBA’s only undefeated team left standing, now 7-0 to start the 2013-14 season. The Pacers snapped a four-game losing streak to the Nets, winning 96-91 at Barclays Center and ending Brooklyn’s two-game home winning streak to start the season. The loss dropped the Nets to 2-4, a reeling record for a team with championship expectations.
A sunken Williams called himself out for a “stupid” foul he committed on George Hill that put the Pacers up 92-87 and a turnover with a minute left, the team’s 14th of the game, but knew there was more to the loss. “We gave up a lot of second-chance points,” Williams acknowledged. “A lot of times in the shot clock, we defended well for 22, 23 seconds, then we’d give up an offensive rebound and a 3. Those type of things, they take a toll on you.”
“These games sting,” Williams added. “We played hard tonight, and we just had six turnovers in the fourth quarter… things we’ve got to get better at.”
Williams, who’s begun the season shaking off a sprained right ankle, added more explosive on-the-floor moves than he’s shown all season. But the Nets allowed 20 second-chance points, with the Pacers shooting 9-13 from the field after securing an offensive rebound.
The Pacers were led by Paul George, one of the NBA’s quickly rising stars. George finished with 24 points on just 14 shots, hitting 3 of 5 three-pointers and all five of his free throws. George added six rebounds and two assists. “(He’s) very complete,” Williams said of his foe. “He can shoot, he can drive it, he’s a great rebounder, great passer, facilitator. Really no holes in his game.”
It’s easy for a team to lose faith in themselves with this type of early spiral, but the Nets seem geared for the long haul. “Everybody’s checked their egos at the door,” Johnson said of this team’s star-studded roster. And Paul Pierce backed him up: “We can’t get frustrated. We’ve got to stay together & we’ll figure this thing out.”
There’s often not much positive to take from a crushing loss, but this Pacers game provides an opportunity for hope. The Nets played a tight, competitive game with the current class of the NBA, hanging around and making a fierce comeback in the fourth quarter. Still, the moral victory would hit stronger if they hadn’t lost close games twice already to inferior competition in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards.
As for Garnett, speaking well after his usual time, he addressed the media with quiet intensity, frustration underlining his even words. “It’s frustrating, but I don’t think you put a timetable on something that you’re trying to get perfection,” he said of the team’s early struggles. “You’re trying to cut down on mistakes, and you’re trying to form chemistry, and you’re trying to be consistent with that. I don’t think a timetable is something you can put on that, especially when you’re in the process of working on it. But it is frustrating.”
He added that Indiana was a well-coached team, but that the Pacers both won the game and the Nets gave it away. “You find yourself running in quicksand,” Garnett said of the team’s effort. “We could never turn that corner tonight. … We took some good points (of emphasis) from this.”
The Nets can only look ahead now, with three days off before their next game; they’ll practice Monday at an Army base in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, before heading off to California for the beginning of a three-game West Coast trip against the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers. A perfect road trip would bring the Nets back over .500, while the opposite would bring them well beyond their worst nightmares.
Does Brooklyn welcome the rest? At least one player does, the same one that took some personal time to rest after the loss. When asked if the three-day break was a bad thing or a good thing, Garnett expressed levity, if only for a brief moment. “Days off are always good.”