There are close to seven billion people on our planet Earth, and I’m willing to bet that less than half of you tuned in for Wednesday night’s Brooklyn Nets-Houston Rockets contest. The Nets, after all, had yet to win a game, and they faced a much more talented foe on the road. It seemed like a recipe for a loss, particularly after they couldn’t even beat the lowly Los Angeles Lakers at home just five days earlier.
So you might’ve been surprised to wake up and see the lead story on every network and newspaper in the country: THE NETS WON A GAME.
If you didn’t see it, you were probably flabbergasted. So to help you understand what happened, here’s eight points on the team’s eight-point win:
1) A tough fourth-quarter defensive effort. There were no shortage of defensive lapses throughout the game that the Rockets took advantage of, most of them to get Dwight Howard open dunks at the rim. Putting Brook Lopez in pick-and-roll defense against Howard is a recipe for (Rockets) success.
But the fourth quarter was different, particularly at the rim. Lopez racked up four of his five blocks in just the last quarter, including two emphatic Howard stuffs on back-to-back possessions that led to Howard arguing for nonexistent fouls. The Nets scored on the two ensuing possessions, taking a lead they’d never relinquish.
It wasn’t just Lopez. Though only one was officially counted as a block, Thomas Robinson put together three nifty defensive possessions defending the rim down the stretch, and was rewarded with a breakaway dunk on his last play of the game. The Rockets missed 20 of their 27 fourth-quarter shots, and though they just missed a few open looks, the Nets were still able to take advantage.
2) Lopez involved early, not late… again. His defense aside, a running trend in Brook Lopez’s Nets tenure has been an early involvement in the team’s offensive structure, but a faded presence late.
Sure enough, Lopez’s fingerprints were all over the team’s first-half successes, scoring 14 points in a variety of creative ways. But he then missed all five of his second-half looks, a couple of them jumpers that fell well short on the rim.
Lopez has always scored more in the first half than in the second, both in terms of raw points per quarter and per minute. But in the past two years, it’s precipitously trended downwards.
It’s not as though the Nets need to keep Lopez out in crunch time: he’s one of the team’s best free throw shooters, and one of the best big men all time at hitting free throws. It’s not clear if that’s a matter of fatigue, or perhaps protection: Lopez’s decline in second halves has only exacerbated in recent years following his second foot surgery. But it’s clear that he’s best when he’s getting a lot of early points, and then the Nets find another answer as the game progresses.
3) Open threes going in. It’s a novel concept, but one I brought up earlier this week: the Nets just had too many guys who can shoot to not make open threes sometime. It turns out Wednesday was that night: Bojan Bogdanovic and Shane Larkin combined to hit five of the team’s eight threes, the team as a whole shot a season-best 47.1% from deep, and Bogdanovic’s last make was a crucial game-clincher late in the fourth quarter.
4) Bojan Bogdanovic, multi-talented offensive threat. Following an uneven preseason marred by injury, Bogdanovic got off to a slow start to the season, missing his first seven three-pointers. But Bogdanovic has been a much more well-rounded scorer since then, and last night’s 22 points on 10-20 shooting (after an 0-for-4, then 2-for-9 start to the night) were a season high.
Bogdanovic, like most of his teammates, relies on a soft touch over high-flying force. The majority of his points came on short pops, using the glass and his off-balance nature to deke defenders and fool them with pump-fakes. Playing with Lopez, who draws a ton of attention in the paint, helps him get free on the inside.
It also helps that he doesn’t give up on plays — just watch him wait even after getting passed over for a wide-open three, and sneak in for the loose ball and two easy points.
Don’t read too much into his fluky rebounding numbers, but the scoring touch is there, and it should end with him continuing to get big minutes.
5) “Joe Johnson, Distributor” deserves a better nickname. I predicted before the season that “Joe Johnson is Brooklyn’s best passer” was the singular positive take that I would beat into the ground this season, so consider this me raising the hammer again. Johnson finished with a season-high 10 assists to zero turnovers, joining Vince Carter as the only non-point guard in Nets history to hit double-digits in assists without turning the ball over.
Johnson’s skills as a passer don’t come from threading the needle to create impossible plays, but from making the simple pass to an open teammate for an easy shot. No look was more evident than his 9th: Johnson drove into a double-team, forced the defense to collapse, and found Bogdanovic for the aforementioned game-clinching three-pointer.
6) Shoddy Houston perimeter defense. If the Rockets have a weakness, it’s their ability to guard the perimeter, and that last play was a textbook example. After Bogdanovic keys the pass to Johnson, you can see Rockets guard Ty Lawson gesture to Marcus Thornton (guarding Bogdanovic) to stay close to Johnson, either preparing for a double-team or playing some semblance of a zone. (Nobody else appeared to be zoning up on the play.)
But doing so left Bogdanovic alone in the corner, packed all five Rockets players were in the paint, and nobody was near Bogdanovic, who had an eternity to set up and fire.
7) This, uh, basketball play.
This is the basketball equivalent of my high school dating career.
8) The Czar Of The Invisible Telestrator. I don’t have the ability to grab video of this, but it was spectacular. If you’ve watched a YES Network broadcast before, you’ve seen Mike Fratello & Ian Eagle fuss with the telestrator in one of their best long-running bits: Fratello draws something indecipherable, and Eagle joyously guesses what it could possibly be. The YES Network broadcast didn’t have a telestrator Wednesday night in Houston, and Eagle (with help from Sarah Kustok) flipped the script, instead guessing what Fratello would have drawn, squealing with excitement when he got one. It was perfect play-by-play comedy. Eagle, Fratello, Kustok, Ryan Ruocco, and Jim Spanarkel are the team’s top five-man combo, bar none.
If you grabbed that video, or were able to find it anywhere, please send it my way so I can laugh again.
Bonus: Weird plus-minus numbers. Andrea Bargnani, who is not known for how well he fares in plus-minus, was a +16 in 17 minutes. Thaddeus Young, arguably (and likely) the team’s second-best player, was a -15 in 22 minutes. Part of Bargnani’s success likely came from playing minutes next to Shane Larkin, who had his best game in a Nets uniform, but it does go to show how wonky those numbers can be.