Nets sputter in season-opening loss to Cavaliers

Kevin Garnett, Tristan Thompson
0-1/82. (AP)
Kevin Garnett, Tristan Thompson
0-1/82. (AP)

So is the season over?

In the debut of what’s arguably the greatest starting five in Brooklyn Nets history, the Nets sputtered to the first finish line, sitting Deron Williams the entire fourth quarter in a 98-94 road loss at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Williams, on a minutes restriction, played more minutes than expected in the first half after Shaun Livingston picked up three quick fouls in the first quarter. Williams finished with 22 minutes, exiting the court for good with 4:58 left in the third.

With Williams restricted both in body and floor time, the Nets only saw a glimpse of their full potential. Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez took the floor for the first time ever as a competitive unit, facing off against another professional basketball team. Because of Williams’s injury and coach Jason Kidd’s rest plan, the five did not see a tick together in preseason.

In the first few minutes, we saw a glimpse of just how terrifying this unit can be for opponents. The Nets ran back-to-back screen-and-rolls with Deron Williams and Paul Pierce, freeing Pierce for two midrange jumpers. The Nets then went to a screen-and-roll with Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett, which turned into a curl play utilizing those two. Shortly after came a post-up for Brook Lopez. That’s all five players, utilized in the first few minutes.

Brooklyn’s Backcourt, last offseason’s major coup, were the last two starters to shoot and score, and it wasn’t a forced effort to involve anyone else. It was the fluid motion offense Jason Kidd preached all through training camp and preseason. The Nets were snapping early, rushing out to a 10-2 lead on easy looks, and a victory seemed imminent.

But things slowly unraveled on both ends of the floor. The ball movement that defined the first five minutes stagnated for possessions at a time. “When we moved the ball, we got good shots,” Paul Pierce said to reporters after the game, noting that when they stopped moving, the shots dried up.

Indeed, the Nets starting 5 played as a cohesive unit. In 12 minutes together on the court, the unit shot 11-20 from the field, recording nine assists on those 11 field goals. (One of the two unassisted field goals was an offensive rebound putback by Kevin Garnett.) They jumped out to that lead in the first half and quickly erased a deficit in the third quarter.

Of the starters, Brook Lopez finished with a team-high 21 points, most on tip-ins and shots around the rim. Pierce added 17 points on eight shots, and Kevin Garnett was one bucket shy of a double-double (eight points, 10 rebounds).

There’s room for explosion with this starting unit, and we saw a couple of spurts before Williams left for good. But without Williams, the game had an eerie preseason feel; Livingston, combo guard Jason Terry, and 6’6″ wing Alan Anderson split point guard duties, and the Nets struggled with poor shot clock management and shot selection. The Nets were a revolving door defensively, getting wrecked in pick-and-rolls and giving up multiple last-second open shots to the Cavaliers.

Along with Williams’s restriction, the Nets played Wednesday night without Andrei Kirilenko (back spasms) and coach Kidd (serving the first of a two-game suspension).

Every team that’s not tanking for draft position wants to win every game. The Nets certainly do. They’re not playing to lose, so every loss hurts. But there’s also a long-term perspective here. The Nets lost a four-point game to a playoff-caliber team on the road without their sixth man, without their head coach, and without their floor leader in the last 17 minutes. There’s a lot of room left for growth, a lot of time for this team to gel and get healthy. The time is now, but that means this year, not necessarily this month.

The Nets can’t dwell much on Wednesday night. Friday they face a formidable foe, taking on the defending champion Miami Heat in their home opener. Kidd will still be away from the team as he serves his suspension, but two more days of rest means a better chance of seeing Andrei Kirilenko, the Nets’ best chance at dulling LeBron James’s effectiveness, and perhaps a looser minutes restriction for Williams. If so, Brooklyn finally has a shot to play Miami even in the regular season, after losing three blowout losses last season.