BROOKLYN, NY. — There was an eerie quiet that permeated Barclays Center Sunday afternoon.
You might blame it on a football Sunday, but there were butts in the seats. Even Paul McCartney showed up for the Sunday matinée, for reasons unclear. The attendance fell short of the announced crowd of 14,552, sure, but there were enough to make noise. They just… didn’t.
It was quiet enough to hear Kevin Garnett barking out defensive orders from hundreds of feet away. Other than a few surprise oohs and ahhs at dunks and crossovers, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking you went to an afternoon holiday church service instead of a basketball game.
You couldn’t blame them for the silence, either. That quiet continued from the Barclays Center rafters into the Brooklyn Nets locker room after another disparaging loss, this time 100-85 to the now 11-16 Minnesota Timberwolves. It continued after another ineffective offensive night, another listless performance, and a laughable close to an uncompetitive game: a breakaway layup by 39-year-old Andre Miller, the antithesis of athleticism.
The Nets were defeated by Karl-Anthony Towns, who finished with a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds. They were defeated by Gorgui Dieng (20 points & 10 rebounds off the bench), Andrew Wiggins (16 points), Kevin Martin (16 points), and Ricky Rubio (15 assists).
Brooklyn’s phrase du jour was energy and effort, bemoaned by Lionel Hollins, Brook Lopez, and Jarrett Jack. The players spoke in muted, defeated tones befitting a 7-20 team searching for answers.
“It was nothing X’s and O’s or anything like that, it was just energy and effort,” Lopez said. He later added that “we haven’t had a complete game in a while, and you can see that. We absolutely have to. It takes every person who steps onto the court to set the attitude, and we certainly need the bench to come in and do the same, or even pick it up.”
“We have to soul search individually and collectively,” a brusk Jack said after the game. “We can’t have that (effort) going forward.”
The Nets hit just 32 of 78 shots, including 5-for-21 (23.8%) from three-point range. That includes an efficient 8-for-11, 20-point, 12-rebound, 5-assist night from Brook Lopez, the lone bright spot in Barclays Center’s dark void.
“It’s not about shots not falling,” Lionel Hollins said after the loss. “It’s about effort. It’s about energy. It’s about competing out there. Yeah, we’ve shot 41 percent in other games.”
That’s true: this is the fifth time this season the Nets have shot 41 percent or worse. They’re also 0-5 in those five games.
It’s been a rough season on both ends of the floor. The Nets rank 28th out of 30 NBA teams in points scored per 100 possessions (97.2), ahead of only the lowly 76ers and Lakers, and 21st in points allowed (104.0).
By that metric, their defense is actually better than it’s been in the last two seasons. But buying out Deron Williams meant the team lost the engine that propelled them to offensive mediocrity, and their effectiveness has plummeted.
“There’s always something you can try,” Hollins said when asked about the offense. He did not go into detail about what he might try.
The Nets rank last in the NBA in three-pointers per game, three-pointers attempted per game, and three-point percentage. We’ve been over this: they’re shooting threes like it’s 1987.
With a clear focus on working inside — they’re third in the league in points in the paint — you might think the Nets draw more contact than an average NBA team. But they also rank last in free throws made and attempted per game.
The Nets offense runs through players that take a lot of floaters and tough shots: Lopez, Jarrett Jack, Joe Johnson, and Thaddeus Young all do the brunt of their shooting just outside the restricted area, choosing to pull up in the lane or float hook shots over defenders.
The Nets are also great at those shots. They lead the league in shots made (8.9), shots attempted (19.4), and field goal percentage (45.7%) on shots inside the paint, but outside the restricted area.
But other NBA teams turn those shots into cleaner looks. For the Nets, those shots are their focal point.
“I think we take a lot of tough shots,” Johnson said. “It’s just not — we get in the paint, whether it’s the perimeter, instead of us kicking out, we’ll take a forced shot. And it’s kind of vice versa. We throw it in, and if it don’t come out, then it gets contagious. So now everybody’s taking tough shots and it leads to a low percentage.”
Johnson finished the night 2-10 from the field, adding six assists.
Low shooting percentages coupled with low effort leads to losses. And the losses have mounted for the Nets, who now hold the third-worst record in the league with a team mostly composed of veterans.
“I know for me, it’s been tough for me,” the 34-year-old Johnson said of the season. Earlier, he told The Record that this is the hardest season he’s been a part of since his first years with the lowly Suns. “Not just starting tonight or last week. It’s kind of been like that from the start. So we’ve just got to try to find life. Some way, some how.”
It’s easy to see what the Timberwolves are made of. They have young cornerstones in Towns, Wiggins, and Rubio; athletic counterparts in Dieng and Zach LaVine, veterans like Kevin Garnett, Miller, and Martin. There is a culture and continuity that’s been built, where even losses are learning experiences. There’s a vision and an end goal.
For the Nets, there’s little continuity and clarity. They have Lopez and Young, a few young castoffs, two injured rookies, some expiring players, and 20 losses in 27 games.
It only gets worse in the offseason, when Brooklyn’s draft pick — almost assuredly a high lottery pick — goes to the Boston Celtics. They don’t control a first-round draft pick until 2019, and a second-round pick until 2021. Their best hope is to get lucky in free agency, luring a big-name player with cap room that 25 other teams will have.
For now, they’re not building a fortune. They’re running out the clock, hoping to strike gold after sending away most of their shovels and metal detectors.
Without a clear future, they can only look to tomorrow, when they take on the Bulls in Chicago.
“Just keep working, man, obviously,” Johnson said. “We’ve got Chicago tomorrow, I’m sure they’re going to be desperate coming off a loss. So we’ve got to go in there and see what we’re made of.”