Thoughts on the Game: New York Knicks 93, New Jersey Nets 89

For Lawrence Frank, game five of the preseason was about “experimentation” with the rotation due to the injuries that had left him without Devin Harris, Jarvis Hayes and Keyon Dooling. We saw things in last night’s game like Bobby Simmons at the four (yuck), Will Blalock getting time at the point (eh), and a Sean Williams sighting in the third quarter – who was surprisingly more productive and active on defense than he was in the preseason opener when he looked like he had about 20 other places he wanted to be instead of the basketball court.

But to me, the night belonged to two players who are likely going to be key parts of the Nets rotation without any experimentation – well maybe some tinkering with one of these players because of his versatility (which I notably assailed on this site only a few days ago). Yes, last night was another loss, and the Nets are now 0-5 in this preseason and have often looked about as bad of a basketball team as many preseason analysts have predicted them to be. But I left Madison Square Garden last night with a good feeling about Yi Jianlian (21 points, 7-14 from the field, and 11 rebounds) and Terrence Williams (21 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists). Yi especially showed me things last night that I don’t think I ever saw from him last season. Aggressive basketball. Driving to the hoop and moving towards the ball on offensive sets. As a whole, smart field goal attempts. This is where the word “potential” is always attached to his name like his uniform number.

Like with about 2:35 left in the first quarter. Courtney Lee had the ball on the left side of the court and drove on Danilo Galinari to the rim where he gets lost in a sea of tall bodies including David Lee and Darko Milicic. Yi started the play at the top of the key. Once Courtney was in the paint, the Yi of last year would either take  himself out of the play by lingering at the top of the key, or maybe wander to the right corner for a low-percentage jumper. The 2009-10 version of Yi actually cut to the hoop, where he took a nice little wrap-around pass from Lee for the easy inside shot and two points. Then, about 30 seconds later, Yi got the ball near the top of the left blocks with Jordan Hill fronting him. Rather than shooting the jumper right there, Yi went into post-up mode, turning his back to the basket, creating a little space between him and Hill and then hitting a beautiful turn-around jumper for the two.

Maybe my eyes were deceiving me but with about 9:52 left in the third quarter, were Yi and Brook Lopez running a high-low set? With Yi down low getting fouled under the hoop for two shots? Thinking about the Nets chances to land a big free agent next summer, I have been thinking a play like that would only be possible with a guy like Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudamire pairing up in the frontcourt with Brook. But Yi?

Yi’s confidence seemed to grow with each subsequent play.  At around the 9:16 mark, Rafer Alston missed the jumper and Yi dove to the basket for the tip-in, missed, grabbed the rebound, went back up strong and got fouled.  At the 9:16 mark in the fourth quarter, he slammed home a put-back off the Terrence Williams missed jumper.

And it wasn’t all offense from Yi. After a Brook Lopez turnover at the 7:53 mark in the fourth, Yi ran back on defense and made a clean block on a Jared Jeffires layup attempt. And don’t look now but Yi, the guy who was “bullied” into six fouls by Kevin Garnett last weekend in Boston, didn’t commit a foul until the 6:32 mark in the fourth quarter. Who was this guy?

Speaking of turnarounds, Terrence Williams also looked more comfortable tonight – but how much of that was due to the fact that he was used more correctly in the point forward spot compared to his terrible game running the point Tuesday night against one of the best and quickest PGs in the game in Rajon Rondo? Where TWill will excel in the passing game this season is when there’s another pure point on the floor with him who will likely get picked up on defense by the other team’s PG. That way, when Williams does take over as point forward, his speed and passing precision will generally create match-up issues for the opposition. Case in point, with about 8:24 left in the second quarter, Will Blalock was technically the point guard, but TWill got the ball handling duties for a set and was matched-up with Darko Milicic. Williams was able to drive by Darko, drawing a double in the paint from him and Jordan Hill. TWill then passed it off to Josh Boone who (surprisingly) hit the open jumper. On the next offensive set, Williams brought the ball up the court and was once again guarded by Darko. The Nets ran a pick-and-roll set with Williams and Boone and Williams, driving to the hoop got picked up by Darko, Hill and Wilson Chandler, which freed the cutting Boone inside the paint for the easy two.

And who says Terrence Williams can’t shoot? At the 10:06 mark, a fake to the basket made Larry Hughes back off TWill, allowing him to hit a pretty jumper from the top of the key. Williams also made a couple of three pointers in the final quarter that kept the Nets within striking distance down the stretch. Yes, TWill ultimately made the turnover on the final offensive set of the game for the Nets on the inbounds pass – a bizarre play call by Lawrence Frank that seemed to take forever to develop and would have likely led to a five second violation if Williams held onto the ball for another moment. I’m not going to kill him for that. Williams has shut me up for the time being.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot to be disgusted about last night. There are issues that if they continue to go unchecked, will sink this team into an early hole to start the season. Getting to see the whole court in front of me rather than just the TV feed for the first time, I saw part of the problem with the perimeter defense. The wings are leaving their men too quickly to assist Brook on the blocks. Why not let Brook attempt to hold his own against smaller guys like David Lee? Worst case scenario, they get two points, instead of an open three. On the offensive end, the second unit, as currently composed is terrible. There were long stretches last night where there wasn’t a single guy on the floor who could put the ball in the basket. I know Chris Douglas-Roberts has had a nice preseason, but I hope Frank doesn’t name him a starter since he’s much better suited in the sixth man role, adding scoring punch to this otherwise offensively inept bench. And speaking of CDR and scoring – if the guy is going to start, he needs to start recognizing where his teammates are and who’s guarding them when he has the ball. There were a number of situations last night where CDR either ignored, or didn’t see Wilson Chandler guarding Brook Lopez down low. Instead of exploiting the mismatch, Douglas-Roberts chose to shoot for himself. That’s just not good basketball, and a point on offense that the Nets can’t afford to experiment.