Thoughts on the Game: Celtics 91, Nets 88

Let me start things off with a mantra: this is only preseason, this is only preseason, this is only preseason …

These games still mean nothing, even if it was the first opportunity for New Jersey Nets fans to see their team on the home YES Network. Still, you have to think on a night where the Boson Celtics were sitting all of their “Big Three,” and the Nets were playing with a healthy starting lineup before their anticipated first-ever game at the Prudential Center in Newark, that maybe, possibly, this was the night the Nets would pull down their elusive first win of the October “doesn’t count” segment of the season.

Instead, the healthy bodies became unhealthy as Devin Harris left another game, this time with a groin injury, bringing Yi Jianlian with him, who was suffering from a shoulder strain. A halftime lead of 13 (by way of 60 points), evaporated as the Nets were outplayed in the fourth quarter by a Celtics unit led by Rajon Rondo and Glen “Big Baby” Davis. The Nets, who looked soft and confused without Devin Harris running the point, scored only 11 points in the fourth quarter. The Celtics owned the offensive glass, grabbing 14 boards. Players like Eduardo Najera were airballing critical three-point shots in the closing minutes, while the Nets were apparently trying to set a screen for Brook Lopez from beyond the arc in a final attempt to tie the game – nevermind that he’s never sunk a three-pointer in his pro career.

Someone who did look on his “A” game tonight was Courtney Lee, starting for the first time this preseason. The final stat-line was certainly more than good – 21 points on 7-12 shooting – but what was most impressive was the variety of ways he scored his points. Lee was aggressive in taking it to the hoop early, but didn’t settle in until towards the end of the first quarter when he sunk two three-balls.  A play with about a 1:03 left in the second quarter reminded me of one of my favorite Nets of all time: Devin Harris leading the break with a streaking Lee, long limbs and all, grabbing the pass in-stride and laying it in. Does that sound like a play oft-converted by a certain lanky former Nets shooting guard from Villanova?

Chris Douglas-Roberts, who has already received a lot of attention this preseason for his scoring output, showed a complete game in the first quarter, en route to 10 points on 5-5 shooting (he finished with 19 points). With about 9:03 to play in the first, he sunk a nice and easy 18-footer. At the 7:11 mark, CDR dribbled near the top of the key and gave a little head fake and a crossover, making his way to the rim for the easy layup. You’re going to hear these words a lot throughout the season when referencing CDR – especially if Lawrence Frank slots him into the starting lineup like he did again tonight – it’s never pretty, but it works.

Speaking of the starting lineup, Jarvis Hayes was on the bench again, though he did get himself into the game tonight, making a couple of jumpers in the second quarter before going stone cold like the rest of his team in the second half. YES play-by-play man Ian Eagle, one of my all-time favorites, suggested that Frank may just like Jarvis off the bench, despite Hayes being one of the featured reversible jerseys being offered in the infamous Nets ticket promotion (which was promoted at length on YES Network tonight).

Despite the absence of some hall-of-fame caliber players on the Celtics side tonight, Brook Lopez still had to bang it out against some pretty legitimate big men like Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace. Brook had one of those games where the stats were fine (17 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks), but some plays where he didn’t come through  made me the most excited about his potential. With about 5:47 left in the third, Lopez posted up on Perkins down low and worked in a nifty little drop step to get a short jumper off, which clanged off the rim. It’s silly to celebrate a missed shot, but Lopez showed he had the moves to get a high percentage shot off against a good defender in Perkins. Once he gets more consistent with that specific shot off the drop step, watch out.

The final aspect of the game I couldn’t go without commenting about was the venue itself. There’s been a lot of buzz about “The Rock” this week, especially by those fans who wish the Nets would stay in New Jersey rather than have a wandering eye towards Brooklyn. To be honest, for the first three quarters, it sounded like any other New Jersey-based Nets crowd I’ve grown accustomed to hearing. But there was definitely a little buzz in the fourth quarter as the Celtics took the lead and then the Nets battled to make it a back-and-forth affair in the closing minutes. The crowd was estimated at about 13,000, not bad for a preseason game. This will surely provide some fuel to the “Newark not Brooklyn” fire.

But remember the mantra: it’s only preseason, it’s only preseason, it’s only preseason…