It was a quintessential tale of two halves Wednesday night at the TD Garden, as the New Jersey Nets fell 107-92 to the Boston Celtics to conclude the preseason with a record of 3-5. Each team played without one of its big men, as Jermaine O’Neal missed the game with an injury, and Avery Johnson elected to rest Brook Lopez along with Jordan Farmar for the final exhibition contest — right after I said you’d see a more solidified rotation representative of the regular-season plan this morning. Shows what I know. Derrick Favors pleasantly led the Nets with 16 points off the bench, and Paul Pierce paced Boston with 17.
The Nets looked great in the first half and took a 55-48 lead into the break. Then, for the 7 millionth time in the last three seasons, they lost the lead in the third quarter and couldn’t recover from there, as Boston completely outplayed them with a 59-37 second-half scoring margin. It was refreshing to see the team play well in the absence of Lopez, but in typical fashion, the Nets couldn’t hold it together.
In the first half, the Nets played polished basketball. They took good shots, hit the open looks, didn’t turn the ball over, and played stingy defense. In the second half, not so much. While the team finished shooting 48 percent overall, the rate was much lower in the third and fourth periods. The team also hit only one of eight three-point attempts over the course of the game. If the Nets are going to come out strong, they’ll need to learn to pace themselves for the entirety of the game. A two-faced effort like won’t work during the regular season. That said, they did play the Celtics, one of the better teams in the league; ultimately, it’s no big surprise that the Nets lost. Still, to have the game in hand like that and lose it is a discouraging image.
But enough about that. Let’s look at some of the positives. Undoubtedly one of the most significant for the Nets was the play of the power forwards. Kris Humphries won the dice roll and got the start, and he responded splendidly, stuffing the box score with impressive dynamism. All told, he had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, and a block. If everyone’s healthy, Humphries likely won’t get all that much time on the court this season, but seeing that he’s capable of games like this makes his exercising that $3.2 million player option this offseason much more tolerable. And if Favors ends up getting swapped for Carmelo Anthony or anyone else, Humphries can handle the load as a backup to Troy Murphy.
Joe Smith played 14 minutes in the game, and while he didn’t make either of his two shots, he had an effect in the first half on the defensive end. He had his hands full with Boston’s frontcourt, but he hung in there strong: he was partially responsible for holding Kevin Garnett to 6-of-14 shooting and forcing his 5 turnovers. Furthermore, his pick-and-roll defense was a model for the other players on the team. When he showed on guards coming off screens, he was a brick wall, stopping the guards in their tracks and throwing a wrench in the play. It’s those little things that Smith can bring to the team without being a major force in the box score.
Then there’s Favors. Regardless of the waffling opinions of his play thus far in the preseason, he had a pretty solid game tonight. His 16 points came on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and a perfect 6-of-6 from the charity stripe. He also had 4 boards and 2 rejections, but he still needs to learn to conserve his fouls. Committing four personals in 24 minutes is too many if he wants to stay on the floor for starter minutes. One benefit of the lopsided second half was that we got to see Favors as the go-to option on offense on several plays. Johnson isolated Favors on the block on several occasions, where he looked very comfortable with the ball. Even though he’s only 19 and unequivocally raw, he has a confidence with the ball in his hands that’s rare for young players. His back-to-the-basket moves are smooth, he’s good at creating position, and he just looks like he belongs there. He just needs to work on the touch on his shots and kicking the ball out and reposting when he’s too far from the basket instead of forcing a shot. Nevertheless, the future looks bright for him.
Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, and Johan Petro each shot 4-of-7 from the field and combined for 32 points. Petro was especially surprising, as he put together quite a game with 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Harris and Morrow are going to be two of the team’s key scorers this season, and they’re going to need to do better than 24 points combined in order for the team to win big games. Morrow hasn’t quite hit his shooting groove yet and it seems that Harris is shying away from his usual reckless drives to the baskets to avoid injury in the preseason, so neither of them is a major concern for the team just yet.
A game after putting up just four shots against the Knicks, Travis Outlaw jacked up 11 against the Celtics. That would be a good sign … except that he only converted on four of them — and he missed all three of his long-range tries. His shooting is one of his most important assets for the Nets, and he needs to hit his open looks to make the Nets’ $35 million investment worth it. Terrence Williams was his typical self, contributing 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting in 15 minutes off the bench.
Stephen Graham, Damion James, and Ben Uzoh were essentially nonfactors, and it appears they’ll be sitting toward the end of the bench when the season starts next week. In Uzoh’s case, he might not even be on the bench. But Brian Zoubek’s “DNP COACH’S DECISION” Wednesday night is a promising sign for the rookie point guard.
As the regular season quickly approaches, it’s clear that the Nets have some things to work on, including trying to break the tradition of hitting the third-quarter wall. The four-game losing skid doesn’t help either, but who knows how this game would have turned out if Lopez and Farmar had played or if the Celtics had leveled the playing field by resting two of their central rotation players? At any rate, it was good to get a taste of the new-look Nets, and there are myriad reasons to salivate over opening night against Detroit next Wednesday.