BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Brooklyn Nets beat the Boston Celtics 102-97, and to figure that out, I’m going to skip ahead and dedicate most of this one to the fourth quarter. To be fair to the first three, here’s a brief synopsis: The Brooklyn Nets played fluid, brilliant offense in the first half, spreading the ball in almost ideal fashion. They didn’t break 60 points (as they have a few times this year), and they missed 26 shots, but they extended possessions 15 times with offensive rebounds. That’s insane. The Celtics cut sharply into those offensive rebounding numbers in the second half, as they began to form a “shell” around the rim when shots went up, and the Nets only mustered three more offensive rebounds for the rest of the game. The Nets fell apart in ugly fashion in the third, only Brook Lopez and Deron Williams scored and the team was outplayed in every facet of the game.
Moving to the fourth, and jumping around it:
First and foremost, Avery Johnson chose to foul up four with 20 seconds left and play free-throw-contest the rest of the game… and it worked. Johnson called it a strategy, one born out of Paul Pierce’s pull-up three to cut the lead to 97-95. For what it’s worth, teams do shoot better at home than away generally on free throws, but one study from last year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference suggested that away teams are actually better from the line in close games. It seemed too early, too fast, too odd to turn the game into a free-throw contest with so much time remaining on the clock. They were giving the Celtics points instead of making them earn them.
Regardless, the ends justify the means last night: Pierce had clanged two free throws as the crowd crowed Brooklyn before that three. Johnson had faith in his strategy, his fanbase, and his roster to outscore the Celtics in a game of charity stripe. They did. Panic prevails.
More curiously, and perhaps more troubling, was the change in offensive flow as the game tightened. As the game came closer and closer to a close, the Brooklyn Nets ran multiple late-game isolations for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, either as their opening effort to a possession or after their other simplified plays broke down. Though it was not exclusively iso for this time, here’s the Nets game flow after Brook Lopez’s layup tied the game at 87-all:
4:54 – Joe Johnson missed 3
4:09 – Deron Williams missed 19′ jumper*
3:42 – Deron Williams turnover
3:03 – Joe Johnson made 12′ jumper
2:26 – Joe Johnson made 18′ jumper
1:47 – Joe Johnson missed 12′ jumper
1:45 – Brook Lopez offensive rebound, made putback
1:13 – Joe Johnson turnover*
*- to be fair about these two: in the 4:09, Johnson (who was inbounding the ball with 1.4 seconds on the clock) tried to throw an alley-oop to Lopez, and the ball got knocked away to Williams, who had to hoist one up. In the 1:13, Johnson traveled as he was caught on the baseline trying to pass to C.J. Watson, who was open in the corner.
Even considering that, you can see the common theme watching these possessions: give the ball to Deron or Joe, get out of their way, and let them decide whether they should pass it to the other one in the backcourt. No other Brooklyn Nets player touched the ball in the halfcourt offense in crunch time, outside of Lopez’s offensive rebound putback, which is not an active offensive choice. Lopez, who finished the game with 24 points on 11-14 shooting, was shut out. The Nets had Reggie Evans in instead of Kris Humphries for most of crunch time, and offensively it didn’t really matter.
…But, it worked. And for one game, the ends justify the means. Part of me wonders if Coach Johnson put player Johnson in those situations because they’re the ones he’s become comfortable with over the past six seasons, and doesn’t want to entertain wrinkles in a crunch-time offense just seven games into the season with such a commitment to defense. But conversely, that’s also an offense you can very easily fall comfortably into; despite evidence to the contrary, coaches and players often fall prey to the hero-ball isolation: the one-on-one, mano-a-mano way to determine who the better basketball team is. It’s easy and it tells a good story, but it’s not an optimal offense, and over the course of a season it’ll fail more than succeed.
…But, it worked. So now, the Brooklyn Nets are 5-2 for the first time since 2002-03, their last NBA Finals year. They’re on a four-game winning streak, and now get two days to rest and travel. Their annual west coast road trip begins Sunday afternoon against the Sacramento Kings, another team they should beat, and then the struggling Los Angeles Lakers, who could frankly look like anything by the time the Nets get there. Will the Nets look like the isolation-heavy offense in crunch time again?
Some more notes:
- DID YOU HEAR THE BROOKLYN CHANT COMING TOGETHER BEAUTIFULLY AT THE TIMES WHEN IT MATTERS!? DID YOU SEE PAUL PIERCE MISS TWO FREE THROWS IN A THREE-POINT GAME IN THE FOURTH QUARTER AS IT RAINED DOWN!? DO I CARE THAT IT’S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT THAT WAS JUST RANDOM CHANCE!? DID YOU KNOW JOE JOHNSON REITERATED AFTER THE GAME HOW MUCH HE LOVES IT!? IT GIVES ME CHILLS WHEN IT’S DONE RIGHT. THANK YOU, BROOKLYN, FOR DOING IT RIGHT. Okay, just fixed my caps lock key. Sorry about that.
- Avery Johnson talked a bit before the game about the influence of the Boston Celtics culture, and how he & the Nets are hoping to create a similar culture in Brooklyn.
- At one point in the first half, Keith Bogans cracked Leandro Barbosa, then headlocked him as Barbosa fell to the ground. The call was originally a flagrant foul, but was overturned on replay. The officials thought that Bogans was trying to hold Barbosa up from falling, but it looked ugly on the reply.
- Deron Williams fell to the ground hard in the third after getting hit in what he called a space between his Achilles and his calf. He said the spot was already sore, which is what made it hurt more, but he should be fine going forward.
- Needs to be said: the Nets were down Gerald Wallace and the Celtics were down Rajon Rondo. Rondo means more to his team, but the Nets really don’t know how much of an impact Wallace will have on their on-court numbers yet. He’s only played one game. Basically, I hope he’s back and healthy by Sunday.
- Kevin Garnett yells a lot.
- Kris Humphries does too.
- Jerry Stackhouse continues his streak of being the advanced-stats all-star. Statistically speaking, the team’s offense and defense are both at its best when he’s on the floor, and the team outscores opponents by 34 points per 100 possessions. Also, with the Nets down 85-82 in the fourth, before the offense turned into “watch Brooklyn’s Backcourt Save Or Lose This One,” Jerry Stackhouse hit a windup corner 3 to tie it up.
- Brook Lopez reverse-dunked on Jason Collins, creating a poster no one will ever buy.
- One troubling tendency as the game progressed that’s happened a few times this year: the Nets start going away from running an offense, throwing in an occasional few wrinkles here and there but mostly just throwing things together. The Nets get a lot of early offense out of that action that begins with a down-screen for Deron Williams, but they seem to forget that they do it as the game goes on. In the third, the Nets did get some offense out of a Deron Williams curl play that brought him running to the corner, but outside of that it didn’t have anything near the smoothness or effectiveness of the first two quarters.