BROOKLYN, NY. — Tony Brown is not used to all the hollering he has to do during an NBA game. Following his second game as a head coach, he apologized repeatedly to the media for his gruff, hoarse voice.
“I meant to tell him to suck on another lemon,” Thaddeus Young joked.
In many ways, Brown is still adjusting to the rigors of being a head coach. And he’s not trying to fool anyone: he’s an interim coach for a team nowhere near the playoffs. He knows that, and that this is an audition, not for Brooklyn, but for an NBA gig.
But the players have, for now, bought into what he’s selling. The words “fun” and “encouragement” and “positive” have been thrown around more in three days than they had in the past 15 months, as part of the culture Brown’s trying to cultivate.
Let’s be clear: that might not mean much! The Nets are still well behind most of the NBA in terms of pure talent. Fun only wins games by itself in cheesy movies. But it’s a looser, freer style that leaves mistakes — and in some sense, former Nets coach Lionel Hollins — in the past.
“When your coach is not panicking and he’s staying positive and he’s continued to motivate us, it’s huge for us as far as an energy standpoint,” Young said. “It makes us want to continue to go out there and continue to play, and it doesn’t keep us thinking about what’s happening before as much.
“With us, I think our tendencies before was we were harping on the fact that we were giving up leads and we were harping on the fact that we had some plays where we turned the ball over. But Ton’s mentality is, forget about what happened before this, and let’s try to make a push and try to win this game. That’s huge for us as a team. It says a lot that he believes in us, that he wants us to compete, he believes that we can continue to win the game at any point.”
The Nets have been notorious this season for fourth-quarter collapses: they’ve lost nine games in which they’ve held a double-digit lead, and rank as one of the worst teams in the NBA in terms of net differential in fourth quarters.
But Wednesday night against the New York Knicks was different. The Nets scored 36 fourth-quarter points to close out a 110-104 win, their first at Barclays Center since December 10th. Despite a career-high 31 points from an energized, hoppy Knicks backup Derrick Williams, the Nets were led by a balanced effort from Brook Lopez (20 points, 8-13 FG), Thaddeus Young (19 points, 11 rebounds), Shane Larkin (17 points, five assists) and Joe Johnson (14 points, seven rebounds, six assists).
It was Brooklyn’s second-biggest fourth quarter on the year, and came in a road environment in front of a largely pro-Knicks crowd. Knicks leading scorer Carmelo Anthony sat out with a sprained ankle, which played a part, but the Nets won with offense more than defense, shooting 53 percent from the field and 52 percent (9-17) from 3-point range.
The Nets created open looks through Joe Johnson and Shane Larkin in a few different sets, though the most common was a “Zipper” dribble-handoff between the two wings that led to points on numerous fourth-quarter possessions.
Young told The Brooklyn Game that the look was designed to find easy, open shots, though they also drew a few fouls out of the set. “Just to kind of get them on the move a little bit, and just play through those guys. Brook rolling to the basket, so if they help, hit one of those three, and we got easy open shots.”
Larkin, Johnson, and Lopez combined for 22 of the team’s 36 fourth-quarter points, with Larkin closing out his former team with 11 by himself — including the game-clinching shot and ensuing free throws.
It closed a disappointing night for New York’s Latvian darling, Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis, coming off a 26-point performance Tuesday against the Boston Celtics, was bothered into a 5-for-17 shooting night against the Nets, on mostly difficult looks. That’s a stark contrast from the last time these two teams played, when Porzingis got clean, easy looks en route to 19 points in a blowout Knicks win.
After watching the film from that loss, the Nets prepared to be more physical with the 20-year-old Porzingis, knowing that a back-to-back is difficult for any player.
“One of the things defensively we wanted to make sure we did was touch him,” Brown said. “We gave him a lot of space the last time we played them in New York at the Garden, and he was free to play and he knocked in shots from deep. We just wanted to make sure we were into him a little more tonight than before.”
“I noticed a lot of guys are playing off (Porzingis), and he’s getting free for a lot of open shots and he’s taking shots that guys are not expecting him to take,” Young, Porzingis’s primary defender, added. “So I just wanted to keep my body in front of him, make him feel me, make him take contested shots. That was the biggest thing. Your percentages go down when you take contested shots.”
Young cited timing and positioning as the two biggest keys to defending the rookie.
“It’s all about where you make him catch the ball at, and what point of the shot clock he’s catching the ball also. When other guys are getting into other guys and the shot clock goes down, he’s catching the ball with ten seconds instead of 15 seconds. When he starts to put the ball on the floor, me being physical with him for those one or two dribbles, now he has to figure out what he’s going to do with four or five seconds left on the clock. When that decision-making comes into play, sometimes it works better for the defender.”
The Nets, now 11-28 (1-1 under Tony Brown), will face the Trail Blazers Friday in Brooklyn, welcoming home former Nets center Mason Plumlee.