For all of this talk about Deron Williams attracting Dwight Howard, and how the NBA is a superstar league, you got to just embrace it and love it when a 6’1″ journeyman direct from the D-League helps turn the tide of the game in the Nets favor.
Yesterday’s 116-103 Nets victory over the Toronto Raptors in London – the first NBA game played on European soil – may end up being the peak of Sundiata Gaines’ Nets career. It doesn’t matter, because in similar fashion to what he did in Utah last year, when I think back years from now about the Nets and their historic trip to London, I’m going to think about Gaines, who in a six minute timeframe to start the 4th quarter, propelled the Nets on a 20-6 run that put them ahead and kept them ahead for good.
Prior to the start of the 4th, the Nets were in a back and forth battle, mostly trailing the Raptors, including being down 51-47 at the half, and then 81-78 after the 3rd. The game was looking eerily similar to the first three of the Deron Williams-era. The offense looked fluid but the defense was absent. They allowed 28 and 30 points in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, Demar DeRozan already had passed 20 points before the start of the 4th, and rookie Ed Davis was making a fool of the Nets frontcourt in his 22 minutes, going 6-6 from the field for 12 points. Meanwhile, in the first three quarters, Deron Williams was closing in on a double-double, but was having a difficult time shooting, while Brook Lopez had a monster start, only to disappear for a chunk of the second half (though he did finish strong). And an injury to Anthony Morrow had Avery Johnson throwing bizarro-world lineups out there, including a Johan Petro-Saha Vujacic-Travis Outlaw-Jordan Farmar-Stephen Graham rotation to start the 2nd quarter, that just made me throw up a little in my mouth writing it, and promptly allowed a 10-0 run to the Raptors to start the quarter.
And then Avery turned to Gaines for the 4th, initially in a dual-PG set with Jordan Farmar, and then eventually with Deron Williams, who had teamed with Gaines in Utah last year (and may have been responsible for rescuing him from the D-League and bringing him to the Nets). While I think Ben Uzoh has some tools to be a nice backup PG option in this league, Gaines immediately looked more confident bringing the ball up the court, and then working off the ball when Farmar was setting up plays. His first two FGs came on two fearless drives to the basket, including a count-it and the foul play where he sank the free throw. He then found Damion James in the corner from about 17-feet out for jumper, then drilled a 19-footer of his own to put the Nets up 6. After a Johan Petro (!) three-point play, Gaines found Lopez from about six-feet out, to put the Nets up 11, forcing the Raptors to call the timeout, and officially swinging the momentum in the Nets favor for good. His final line in 8 minutes was 7 points on 3-3 shooting, with 2 assists and 1 steal. He impacted nearly every play he was on the floor for, and even flashed some nice defense, playing DeRozan straight-up out on the wing and forcing him into a 20-foot fade-away jumper, which he missed.
These are the kinds of performances that ultimately make me an NBA fan. Most Nets fans remember the drama of the 3OT Game 5 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Pistons, but for me, what sticks out the most was how the oft-used Brian Scalabrine was forced into action because of the team’s foul troubles, and ended hitting clutch three after clutch three. When the Nets lost Kenny Anderson for the season in 1993, I remember them traveling to Phoenix, the best team in the NBA at the time, and blowing their doors off lead by Rumeal Robinson – a college superstar who had done very little of note in the NBA at that point. These are the moments where I truly “love this game.”
A few more non-Gaines thoughts after the jump:
If it wasn’t for Gaines, this game probably would have been best known as the Damion James coming out party as he put together his best all-around game in a Nets uniform, and looks to be rounding into form after not getting playing time to start the season, then getting on the floor only to injure himself and miss a few months. He stuffed the stat sheet with efficiency, 15 points on 5-6 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and one turnover. He did rack up 4 fouls in 27 minutes, and Avery seemed insistent on using Travis Outlaw in the closing minutes of the game (of no-consequence this time mind you), but James’ game looks to have been immediately elevated by the presence of Deron Williams.
Speaking of Deron, another ho-hum double-double with 16 points and 11 assists, and probably the key post-Gaines play of the game, when he drilled a straight-away three as Kris Humphries got pushed on the screen, leading to a four-point play, putting the Nets back up double digits after the Raptors had cut the lead back down to 7 and 5 in the 4th quarter. Williams also found Lopez in the final 4 minutes after flashing his devastating cross-over only to thread the needle inside to Lopez. We still haven’t see the pick and roll game between Williams and Lopez emerge, and I hope it does soon, but it’s great that the two are starting to develop some level of chemistry.
And speaking of Lopez, after having a few double-digit rebounding games recently, he put up a bit of a stinker in that regard yesterday, scoring 25 points on 11-17 shooting, but only grabbing 2 boards. You can’t complain about Lopez’s offensive approach, he went after the undersized Amir Johnson early, and even got into a bit of a tussle with him in the closing minutes, but I would have liked to see more than 3 free throw attempts, and Lopez needs to demonstrate a little more grit and toughness around the basket on the defensive end. With about 3 minutes to go and the Nets up 9, Lopez was a touch late getting to the sideline to help on a driving James Johnson and he gave him a little touch foul on the layup attempt, allowing him to get the basket and a free throw attempt (he missed). I’m not expecting Brook to bodyslam him, but he’s got to be do better than what he did, and not allow him to get the basket there.
Let’s not forget what a man Kris Humphries was yesterday. 18 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks. Holy crap, could our certain have more games like that?