Holy Josh Smith: Atlanta Hawks 116, New Jersey Nets 101

AP Photo/John Bazemore

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Before the season began in October, one of Avery Johnson’s primary goals was to hold opposing teams to a field goal percentage of under 44 percent. It was a very ambitious goal, one that’s indicative of a top defense in this league. We liked this goal so much at Nets Are Scorching, we even keep track of this stat in the sidebar on our front page.

I’m obviously bringing this up because defensive performances like the one the Nets put forward in last night’s 116-101 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta, will go a long way in ensuring the team does not meet Johnson’s preseason goal. In allowing Atlanta to shoot 60.3 percent for the game, the Nets, while more competitive than they were in Sunday’s smackdown against Boston, had perhaps their worst defensive game of the season, though something tells me there’s plenty of time for this team to top themselves later in the season.

Some credit of course has to go to the Hawks. They weren’t missing and they weren’t even taking strictly high percentage shots. They only scored 10 points in transition compared to 23 for the Nets. They scored 44 points in the paint and attempted 9 less free throws (28) than the Nets (37). That means the Hawks were taking and making an extraordinary number of jumpers. As bad as the Nets rotations were at points, and yes, Brook Lopez still hasn’t learned the art of being a help defender in this league, maybe it was just one of those nights for Atlanta.

How else does Josh Smith go 6-8 from beyond 15-feet (and 6-6 on all of his shots in the paint) en route to a game high 34 points (add in 7 assists and 2 blocks). The Hawks are stacked with volume shooters, and because they play at such a fast pace, they’re a natural bad match-up for the Nets, despite New Jersey’s victory earlier this season. But when Smith gives them a night like that, and Jamal Crawford chips in with 26 points on 11-17 shooting to boot, it’s just bad news for the Nets.

Initially, I thought this game was going to be reprise of Sunday’s game against Boston. Like Sunday, the Nets came out strong, and were only down a point headed into the second quarter (granted, the Hawks pulled ahead after Zaza Pachulia rebounded his own missed free throw and layed it in. Box out shooters please!). But with the second unit, the Nets began to spiral out of control in the second, getting outscore 20-3 to close out the half. At one point, the Hawks scored on 8 consecutive field goal attempts, and the Nets, who had been moving the ball relatively well earlier in the game (Devin Harris did finish with 13 assists an Kris Humphries finished with 5 (!!!!)), got into their settling mode where Brook Lopez struggles to get into the post, Devin Harris dribbles the ball a bunch and either Kris Humphries or Derrick Favors set a pick and roll to the basket and then are promptly ignored (though that’s usually the case moreso when Jordan Farmar is running the point). The 7th and 8th Hawk shots hit in succession were sandwiched with a missed 15-footer from Humphries, who has been so much smarter in his shot selection this season, but certainly chose the wrong situation to get back into shooter mode, and a lazy pass from Harris to Lopez that was intercepted by Crawford.

And yet, the Nets still found a way to claw back into this game come the 4th quarter, whittling a 16-point lead to as close as 5 at one point. But the Hawks always seemed to have an answer. Perhaps the play most indicative of the night’s defense came with less than 4 minutes to play and the Nets making their move. Mike Bibby had a mismatch with Brook Lopez guarding him out on the perimeter and drove to the basket. Anthony Morrow, who had been guarding his man on the weak side of the basket, failed to recognize what was going on and didn’t rotate toward Bibby to offer help, leading to an easy lay-up. I know Lopez gets killed a lot by fans for his lack of athleticism on the defensive end, but Morrow has to have his head in the game there and recognize the play.

A few more thoughts after the jump.

This was an offensive game for Lopez that felt more like last season, which is not necessarily a good thing, but certainly is better than some of the performances he’s put up the past few weeks. Of his 24 points, 16 were scored in the first half. He took advantage of Jason Collin’s slow footedness early and often in this game, doing a majority of his scoring from the blocks. In fact, Lopez didn’t attempt a single FG beyond 15-feet last night, which is terrific. But the Nets found a way to take their own player out of the game in the second half, and while 8 points is better than some other Lopez second halves, given how he was crushing Atlanta early, he should have been utilized more.

I think the Nets have a legitimate issue at the SF position. It was another poor all-around game for Travis Outlaw who scored the first three points for the Nets and then didn’t connect again for the rest of the game, and was also abused by Josh Smith to the point that Avery Johnson had to insert a rookie, Damion James, for defense, James had a very solid game, 10 points and 6 board in 19 minutes and I’m sure the Nets would sign up for that every game that James suits up. However, what is this team going to do with Outlaw? I’d like to think it’s not his contract dictating the playing time since Troy Murphy couldn’t even get into the game last night, but Outlaw has been putrid for the better part of two weeks now. Something has to give.

Morrow had a poor night shooting, but what I like about him, is he sticks with his game and stays within himself, even when his shot isn’t falling. Earlier in the season when the Nets were locked with Orlando down to the wire, Morrow’s only three came at a critical point in the fourth quarter and last night, despite being 1-4 from three, he connected on his 5th attempt and brought the Nets to within 5.