Over 2016 as a whole, the Brooklyn Nets went just 20-61 — from Joe Johnson’s buyout, Sean Marks’ hiring, and the emergence (and disappearance) of Jeremy Lin, the calendar year brought plenty of challenges for the raw, rebuilding squad. Now well entrenched in 2017, for better or for worse, could the Nets start off the new year on a better foot?
While many focused on the return on Joe Johnson to Brooklyn, the Nets had a special opportunity to improve as a team after they collectively vented frustrations following their miserable loss to the Washington Wizards on Friday. Against the steadily rising Utah Jazz — anchored by Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, and Derrick Favors — the Nets would have their perfect first test.
Trevor Booker, who apparently lives and dies to play his former franchises, came out with an unmatched energy and dominated Favors and Gobert on the glass — nearly racking up a double-double in the first quarter alone. Against the tall, stalwart Frenchman himself, Brook Lopez dipped and dinked his way to 9 points of his own and the Nets would actually take a slim 26-24 advantage into the second quarter.
While Gobert would get his massive revenge in time, including a couple of absurd, rim-rattling dunks, the Jazz were frequently left looking for answers without George Hill or Dante Exum on offense. However, despite the renewed effort on defense, there were three or four downright horrific, lack-of-effort turnovers from Brooklyn, allowing the Jazz to hang around until Hayward came back off the bench.
One of Isaiah Whitehead’s strongest single-half efforts — including a fearless take-on of Gobert at the rim — saw him scoring, getting to the line, and even guarding Hayward on the final possession of the quarter. Between him and Caris LeVert, the Nets have suddenly found themselves with a couple more decent man-to-man defenders — something they’ll never have enough of. It’s been a long road for Whitehead, but he’s done well in the emergency role in lieu of Lin.
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 3, 2017
When played resumed, it was Whitehead and Booker again leading the way, pushing the Nets’ lead as high as 9. Whether that meant beating the Jazz up the court (Whitehead), fearlessly taking a speeding Hayward to the chester (Whitehead), or bravely squaring up to a 7’0 monster (Booker), it sure looked like that players-only meeting had the impact they desired — well, for now…
With three minutes and change remaining, Whitehead blocked Gobert at the rim (yes, really) and then stepped into a three-pointer on the other end. To call the rookie’s effort some of his finest minutes on a professional basketball court might even be underselling it tonight — with Lopez, Bogdanovic, and Kilpatrick struggling, they needed every point they could get.
Trying to hang on for dear life in the fourth quarter, the Nets went back to Kilpatrick and Lopez, and Spencer Dinwiddie did his best to add a scoring punch up off the bench. But as the Nets started to fire away at a closed rim, Rodney Hood and Gobert put the game away on five-straight possessions. While the Nets tried in vain to force-feed Lopez, the Jazz, one of the league’s best fourth quarter teams, calmly put things to rest.
The Nets’ strong effort was completely undone in the final frames — sound familiar? Perhaps then, it’s less of a New Year, New Me situation and more of a The more things change, the more they stay the same type of deal. Currently, the Nets sorely lack a closer — Lopez is great in spurts and Kilpatrick is too when he’s cooking, but they still need — ahem — a Joe Johnson-esque type they can just inbound to and get out of the way when they badly need a bucket.
Until they find their new (Joe) Jesus, results like these are the norm, not the exception — but you’ve got to give them credit for undoing 40 minutes of great effort in a little less than 45 seconds, that’s a real talent.
The stats: 14 PTS, 6-16 FG, 6 REB, 2 STL, 2 BLK, 2 TOV
Gobert is no slouch, so Lopez did his best to keep the thunderous center away from the basket at all times. So, yes, a boxscore onlooker might see his small number of rebounds and shake their head — but this was all part of the game plan.
With Gobert occupied on the perimeter, it allowed Booker to take on Derrick Favors, Trey Lyles, and Boris Diaw at will — and the former Jazz man racked up 4 offensive boards. Add in a couple of fantastic blocks from Lopez and you’ve got another solid effort from the former All-Star.
The stats: 7 PTS, 3-5 FG, 1 REB, 1 AST, 2 TOV
Welcome back, Joe Harris, the bench sorely missed you.
The stats: 11 PTS, 3-5 FG, 1 REB, 1 AST
Look out! Another day, another double-digit scoring game for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson! The sophomore has now done this in 5 of his last 7 games — is he finally settling into his new role?