Thoughts on the Game: Heartbreak Tonight

To quote the immortal Alec Baldwin from one of my favorite movies, State and Maine, “Well, that happened.”

What else can you say? The New Jersey Nets 2009-10 season started off with a bang – a comfortable, double-digit lead. The big man in the middle absolutely dominating. The new rookie off the bench having a stellar debut. The game ended with a punch in the gut. And I only say gut because I’m trying to be kind to the actual part of my anatomy that was crushed by the last second offensive rebound and putback by Damien Wilkins (natch when the Nets were going with their “small” lineup of Harris-Lee-TWill-CDR-Lopez) giving the depleted Minnesota Timberwolves the 95-93 victory at the Target Center in Minnesota tonight.

These are the kinds of games that give recappers nightmares. As I’m watching through three quarters, the postgame reaction is basically writing itself. If you can just forget the closing minutes and go back to when the Nets led by 19 points in the second half, you’ll remember an absolutely incredible performance from Brook Lopez. All eyes have been on Lopez since the summer when the Nets traded Vince Carter, their number one scoring option. Analyst and fans alike wanted to know if Lopez could grow from his 13 and 8 rookie season and become a go-to guy on the offensive end, while still playing solid defense. If tonight’s game was any indication, Brook Lopez should start getting his plane ticket to Dallas ready for the NBA All-Star game.  Lopez had 16 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 assists … at the end of the first half. He finished with 27, 15, 5 and 4 respectively. Brook was scoring from all over the court, 18-20 foot jumpers, post moves, high-post pick and rolls with Devin Harris. For three quarters, the Wolves had no answer for Lopez, and YES commentator Ian Eagle even joked at one point that it looked like a scrimmage out there for him.

The other major plotline was the debut of Terrence Williams. TWill did everything you could ask of him in his 31 minutes. He was forced into action early when Chris Douglas-Roberts got into foul trouble in the first quarter, and Williams never looked back. He scored 15 points, showing off his jumper, and his aggressive moves streaking towards the rim. During a two minute stretch in the first quarter, he got into a two-man game with Lopez, who was settled at the high post to run a couple of give-and-go sets, producing four quick points for Williams. He also showcased some of his versatility, grabbing 10 rebounds. On the whole, he looked comfortable and poised out there, being aggressive on defense, and only making a handful of careless turnovers on overly-fancy passes that concerned me during the preseason.

But even as these positive plotlines around the Nets were developing, there were clearly some signs of unraveling from other parts of team. The Nets were very careless with the ball, and completely out of control for stretches, allowing the Wolves to hang around and make small 6-0 and 8-0 runs at various points throughout the second and third quarters. Courtney Lee, who, by all accounts, is going to be a featured player on offense, was ice cold all night, missing scores of open jumpers en route to a 2-11 night. He didn’t even take any shots that could be considered “awful.” One play that stands out was at about the 5:02 mark in the fourth when Lee faked a three, forcing his defender to commit, before moving in to a closer two-point from about 15-feet. It was a smart move, one I’d like to see him employ a lot this season. The problem was, like most of his shots, it didn’t fall.

Chris Douglas-Roberts, he of the fantastic preseason, couldn’t stay on the court long enough to prove if his play in early October was a fluke. He was in foul trouble all night, picking up ticky-tack fouls guarding the likes of Corey Brewer and Damien Wilkins. Then, one of CDR’s replacements at the 3, Jarvis Hayes, injured himself less than 2 minutes into his season, tweaking a hamstring while committing a hard foul in the first quarter.

Then there was Devin Harris. There was something that just didn’t seem right about him. You have to wonder how good his legs and ankles are feeling right now, as he only played about 29 minutes, and was sat for long stretches in the second half, where Rafer Alston just seemed to lose control of the offense. There always seemed to be someone there to bail out the backcourt during these dire moments: with about 9:16 in the fourth, Josh Boone, not known for his offensive moveset, made a great drop step move for the dunk to put the Nets up by 13.  About 90 seconds later, an  ankle breaking crossover move near the top of the key for TWill led to a layup and two more points, keeping the Nets lead at 12 points.

But with just about 4 minutes left in the game, all of the air of the balloon rushed out, and all of the Nets flaws from earlier in the game came to a collective head. What was most alarming was that the damage was committed with the starting 5 on the floor. Should they have been all playing together? One certainly has every right to question why an ice cold Courtney Lee was getting minutes over Terrence Williams, or why TWill wasn’t used more in place of CDR when a defensive stop was needed. Just the overall sloppiness of the Nets came back to haunt them. With Devin Harris struggling from the perimeter, they tried to work the ball down low to Brook, who suddenly looked like was struggling with picking up the double-team as defenders started to collapse. He turned the ball over a few times, and then, with 24 seconds left, he tried to go one-on-one with Al Jefferson in the post, and opted not to pump fake. The end result was a blocked shot and a turnover.

Yi, who got more touches than I thought he would down the stretch, and actually made some use of them, just made a horrifyingly terrible mental mistake with about 1:47 left in the game, when he committed a lane violation on a Brook Lopez free throw, costing the team a point. These are the kinds of plays that are going to have fans constantly scratching their head with Yi. Sure, he score 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds – numbers you would absolutely sign up for over the course of a season – but where is Yi’s basketball IQ when it matters most?

But now that the dust has settled on the Nets first loss of the season, a painful, painful loss at that, there’s a part of me that understands that this is what I signed up for with the Nets this season. They are young, inexperienced team, with some talent that can look great at times, and absolutely dreadful at other times. The short-term optimism of a season-opener does not excuse these facts, even with a 19 point lead in the second half. This will not be the last time I get punched in the gut by this team this season. So I either need to get used to the recurring pain, or start tightening my stomach muscles on game days.