Nets Are One Part Inspiration, Two Parts Exasperation: Boston Celtics 94, New Jersey Nets 80

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

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Avery Johnson was unfortunately one temper-tantrum short of changing the outcome of this game.

I’ll admit, with the way last night’s game against the Boston Celtics started, especially Johnson’s bizarre behavior, I didn’t think I’d be watching the Nets cling to a one-point lead with about 6 minutes left in the fourth quarter. But basketball is funny that way.

When Avery called a timeout after Boston’s first offensive possession – a cheap Paul Pierce layup delivered from an inbounds pass from under the basket – to chew out Brook Lopez for being out of position on the play, I thought Johnson was just parroting his mentor Greg Popovich, who did a similar thing with his franchise player, Tim Duncan on Monday night. Oh Avery, we get it. Pop is your idol. He’s everybody’s idol, not named Phil Jackson. He’s a great coach. But save the imitations for the next 1999 Spurs reunion.

Avery pushed my buttons as a fan a little further, when the team failed to score a field goal in the first 3:30 and the Nets coach emptied the bench. Devin Harris, out. Lopez out. Morrow, out. Outlaw, you still suck, and you’re out. Favors, you look lazy out there. Let’s get that young up-and-comer Kris Humphries in there. The problem is the reserves didn’t fair much better. Jordan Farmar picked up two quick fouls trying to contain Rajon Rondo with about as much success as Harris did. Pierce was able to blow by defensive specialist Quinton Ross despite the fact that Ross isn’t Outlaw. And Johan Petro may have had the brain fart of the season when at the 3:40 mark of the first, he actually stole the ball off a nice denial on Kendrick Perkins in the post, and then proceeded to attempt to run a fast break by himself before immediately turning the ball back over to Pierce. At this point, I had the write-up in my head: last night’s game was another example of how Avery is an egomaniacal clown who thinks mimicking every coaching cliche from the Basketball on the Big Screen handbook is going to turn him into the Lombardi of the NBA.

But then the game turned around for two and a half quarters and my mouth was shut – sort of. On a night when the Los Angeles Lakers fell to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, the Nets recovered from around the 2:00 mark of the first and clawed their way back to a five-point deficit by the end of the quarter. Then the game was tied at halftime. Then the Nets were actually leading by as many as 9 in the third quarter, riding Brook Lopez who had another uneven game, finishing with 18 points on 8-16 shooting, with 4 blocks and 6 turnovers. It was like the game was developing the way I optimistically predicted in the pregame thread. The Celtics were asleep at the switch, throwing elbows and making stupid offensive fouls and allowing the Nets a window to steal a game on the road they had no business winning.

If only Avery blew his lid again in the fourth quarter. With Boston’s starting rotation back in and playing defensively as if they had six guys on the court at points, the Nets were struggling, but clinging to a 78-77 lead with a shade over 6 minutes to go. They didn’t make another field goal for the rest of the game, and only converted three for the entire quarter, en route to 10 points against a the best team in the East, who finished the game on a 17-2 run.

And there were warning signs. After starting the third quarter 6 for 6, the Nets opened the fourth missing their first four shots and nine of their first ten. The shot selection was putrid and the team was only hanging around because of some timely offensive rebounds. Anthony Morrow missed a contested layup at the 9:10 mark and Hump grabbed the board and kicked it back out to Morrow, who then missed a contested three. 16 seconds later, Brook Lopez forced a running 21-footers I guess because he misread the shot clock and thought it was expiring. Farmar grabbed the offensive rebound and Morrow missed another contested jumper. If the Nets took a shot in the fourth quarter, just assumed it was contested by a Boston defender, because it was. In the meantime, Boston was running a master class on confusing Lopez, constantly throwing Rajon Rondo in his direction in a double team, disrupting the center’s bread and butter moves in the post. Having Kendrick Perkins defending you is bad enough. At one point in the fourth, Perkins forced Lopez to receive the ball out at the right corner three point line. Lopez promptly turned the ball over on a terrible pass towards the paint.

Maybe Avery needed to bench his starters then and there, or maybe the magic had just run out at that point. Maybe there was never any magic to begin with and the 24 minutes of solid ball played by this team was a sheer coincidence. Basketball is a game of runs anyway, and perhaps the Nets were destined to bookend this game with some of their worst offensive play of the season.

A few more thoughts after the jump:

It was a physical game but the Nets did very little to capitalize on some whistles. The attempted just 15 free throws (sinking 12) compared to the Celtics who went 30-39. Think about that. The Nets essentially spotted the Celtics 18 free points and ended up losing this game by 14.

On that note of physicality, the choppiness of these players surprised me. Was Boston trying to send a message to the Nets harkening back to New Jersey’s upset on Boston’s floor last winter? Probably not. A lot of the anger was directed towards Kris Humphries, who threw an elbow in Kevin Garnett’s face, who responded with some intimidating taunting. Hump got thrown by Kendrick Perkins later in the game on a rebound. But beyond Hump, we also saw KG absolutely stick Devin Harris with a pick, earning an offensive foul and after drawing a hard foul from Sasha Vujacic under the rim, Kendrick Perkins clawed The Machines back on the way down, perhaps because Sasha did something to annoy Boston in the Finals two of the past three years.

While Travis Outlaw has been a source of frustration all season, he took a scary spill in the fourth quarter and got his all-star break a few minutes early it seems. Hopefully the guy is ok. With that said, I wonder if there’s a sports psychologist Mikhail Prokhorov can set Outlaw up with because the guy is now having a hard time sinking free throws (2-4 last night) and Outlaw just looks absolutely petrified to shoot out there. Getting Damion James back out there will hopefully be a huge lift, as Quinton Ross just does not have the versatility in his game to play extended stretches. He was sinking a few jumpers in the third quarter, but once the game was in crunch time, the Celtics were denying Lopez and Harris and guys like Ross are not geared to make big shots.