One Away

Nate Robinson, C.J. Watson
Nate Robinson, C.J. Watson

Holy crap.

Four hours after tipoff, and I’m not sure I remember a single thing that happened before the end of regulation. I think Brook Lopez hit a three-pointer. Yeah, that definitely happened. I know C.J. Watson and Nate Robinson got into a fight. And speaking of Nate Robinson — what the hell, Nate Robinson? Nate Robinson got screen-tackled into the floor by Gerald Wallace and followed it up with what I can only describe as what Nate Robinson’s brain probably sees him doing when it’s going through an acid trip.

With the Nets up 109-95 with three minutes left, Robinson hit shots that no human being has any business taking, scoring 23 points in the final quarter to send the game into overtime at 111.

Three overtimes, three huge shots by Joe Johnson, a sustained explosion from Robinson, some key defensive plays by Brook Lopez, two interior buckets by Joakim Noah, and two daggers by Nazr Mohammed — Nazr Mohammed, of all players — and after the dust settled, the Chicago Bulls left with a 142-134 triple-overtime victory, and now lead the best-of-seven series 3-1.

Today’s game was a referendum on this roster and coaching staff, to see if they had formulated an “identity,” as Ian Eagle called it, one that would enact an offensive and defensive system as a cohesive unit. Unfortunately, they responded exactly as Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov accidentally predicted on April 19th — they’re one player away from contention. They’re one smart set away from a victory in regulation. They’re one defensive stop away from tying up the first playoff series in Brooklyn Nets history, and the first one anyone west of the Hudson River ever gave a damn about.

And now, they’re one game away from going home until next season.

Maybe that one player is Deron Williams, who played brilliantly in regulation, scoring 30 points on 10-19 shooting in 42:54, dishing out nine assists, and outside of some early-game jitters looked like the star point guard that the Nets desperately worked to re-sign after trading for in February of 2011 — until overtime hit, when Williams curiously backed away from offensive responsibility, making just one shot in three overtime periods.

Maybe that one player is Joe Johnson, who scored three shots in isolation plays in the first quarter, was used as a flotation device for the better part of three quarters, then showed up to score when the Nets stopped running their offensive sets in overtime.

Maybe that player is a starting power forward, which would move Reggie Evans — a player that every team needs but no team should have to start — away from playing one second short of 50 minutes in a game like this. Evans’s keen knowledge of defensive rotations gets nixed by his mostly ineffective offensive game, one that allowed Chicago to all but ignore him roaming from block to block completely

Maybe that smart set is, I don’t know, running anything at the end of regulation, instead of clearing out for Deron Williams to take on Chicago’s vaunted defense one-on-five:

Here’s a graphical representation breaking down that final play:

I saw a lot of comments after the game that said the Nets lack heart, or fire, or desire. That’s flatly not true. The Nets don’t lack heart. They were centimeters away from winning this game, and the idea that they lack heart is a reverse-narrative at work. They lack shooting on the wings. They lack athleticism in their frontcourt. They lack a starting-caliber small forward (which they shouldn’t) and power forward (which they have all season). They lack an offensive system that maximizes the talents of its best three players. They lack that “one player.” They lack fixable, tangible things, not the incoherent psychobabblistic mess like “grit” or “hustle” or “testicular fortitude.”

What we just witnessed was an amazing basketball game, regardless of the outcome. We saw each team’s best shot. We saw the impossible (Nate Robinson’s explosion) to the improbable (Brook Lopez’s three-pointer) to the expected (Andray Blatche botching a boxout that sealed the outcome). We saw buzzer-beaters. We saw a miniature fight between two guys that legitimately hate each other. We saw three point guards (Williams, Robinson, and Hinrich) each doing what they do best at any given time. We saw two players struggling with plantar fasciitis doing everything to stay on the floor. We saw Brook Lopez score boringly and block shots. We saw P.J. Carlesimo shorten the rotation to seven as all five starters played at least regulation minutes.

But in the end, what we saw is a loss. Now Brooklyn can’t afford one more.