It was all going well for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets during the summer of 2013: pricy acquisitions, new head coaches, and new expectations.
Fast-forward to tonight, where we found two 11-21 teams, expected to be playoff contenders, now fighting for their lives in the toxic wasteland that is the Eastern Conference.
I would’ve loved the theme of this recap to be about the Nets solid first half, in which they outscored the Irving-less Cavaliers 51-38 in the first 24 minutes. I’d love to talk about the first-half ball movement, the fact that Paul Pierce and Deron Williams combined to score 24 points on 11-16 shooting with 8 assists, or the fact that Pierce passed Allen Iverson for 19th on the all-time NBA scoring list.
I’d love to write about all of the wonderful things the Nets did in the first half, and then just say they coasted the rest of the game for an easy blowout win.
Unfortunately, I can’t.
The Nets came out of the locker room at halftime the way they usually do: without energy, focus, and effort. It’s a maddening and repetitive trend that drives anyone who watches them crazy.
Oftentimes I wonder exactly what they do at halftime. Do they talk about where they’re going to go for dinner after the game? Do they sleep? Do they watch the NFL playoffs?
Or as Devin asks:
Seriously, what do the Nets do at halftime? Magic mushrooms?
— devin kharpertian (@uuords) January 5, 2014
Is it lack of adjustments by a rookie head coach? Age? Easing off the gas? Whatever it is, it must stop if the Nets want to get back to a level of respectability.
When the Cavs took the lead on a Matthew Dellavedova three late in the third period, I thought they waltzed back to square one; a momentous win in Oklahoma City against a tough Thunder team did nothing to the psyche of a Nets team in desperate need of some traction.
But unlike some third-quarter collapses this season, this one didn’t spill over into the 4th quarter. As Jason Kidd put it after the game, “Normally a third quarter run on us tends to be a downfall, but the guys stayed together.”
The Nets came out strong in the 4th with a frontcourt featuring Andray Blatche, Andrei Kirilenko, and Mirza Teletovic. Kirilenko served as something the Nets haven’t been afforded in the past: someone who can bring constant energy and tough defense to help the team fight out of its current funk.
When asked about Kirilenko’s role in helping to stop Cleveland’s 14-2 third quarter run, Kidd said, “He’s a pro. Sometimes the stat sheet doesn’t show it. He does all the little things. He’s got a defensive mindset, and being 6’9” with long arms, he can guard a point guard or a four.”
When asked after the game how he stays calm in tough moments, the well-spoken Kirilenko said, “I’ve always been like that. I guess it’s cold-blooded Russian.”
Kirilenko aided what was a strong defensive effort from Brooklyn in the fourth quarter: they held the Cavaliers to just 17 points in that period, including just 36.7% shooting from Cleveland for the entire game.
Throw in a few timely three-pointers from Teletovic, sprinkle some key buckets from Blatche, and the Nets were able to maintain a strong 4th quarter grip that wouldn’t be relinquished.
And though the Cavaliers have scored just 95.1 points per 100 possessions with Kyrie Irving on the bench this season (which would rank dead last in the NBA), the Nets defensive effort these last two games has been at the level that Jason Kidd was hoping for when the season began.
Brooklyn now sits two games out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 49 left to play. Now comes a true test for the Nets — one that they failed once before: can they put together an extended winning streak? Or will they fool us once again with an exertion of false hope?