Thoughts on the Game: Yi’s Big Return is for Naught

YiHowlin Twolf, View from the Couch, Yi Interview, Kiki Vandeweghe Interview

For Nets fans, there was a lot to be frustrated about in last night’s 103-99 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves: getting bullied in the paint and the glass by Al Jefferson (28 points, 7 rebounds) and Kevin Love (13 points, 16 rebounds), Johnny Flynn (22 points, 5 assists) running amok for three quarters, an unfortunate (but correct) call reversal by the refs that ended up giving the T’Wolves the ball back, up 2, with about 25 seconds left in the game, and a bizarre final possession that saw the Nets down 4, yet playing for one shot (and not even getting one off).

But rather than focus on the negative – and let’s face it, at 2-27, there’s just a lot of negative about the New Jersey Nets this season – let’s try to accentuate the positive. And to do that, I have to start with Yi Jianlian.

After missing the past 7 weeks with a knee sprain, I wasn’t expecting much from Yi in his return. Despite some ruminations in practice earlier this week, he wasn’t going to start, and Kiki Vandeweghe stressed he was going to get limited minutes. Add in the fact that Yi has a track record of not being very sharp coming off an injury, there was little reason to believe he was going to be a factor last night.

Instead, Yi forced Kiki’s hand and ended up playing a spectacular 30 minutes where he scored 22 points on 7-12 shooting, including 4-6 from three. After looking a bit tentative when he first checked in the game, picking up a couple of fouls and committing a turnover, Yi got a fast break dunk off an outlet pass from Keyon Dooling, and never looked back. He hit his first three at the top of the key at the 1:24 mark, and when the Wolves kept leaving him open in the second quarter, he responded by making three more long jumpers, including another three from the left corner at the 9:37 mark.

What was even more impressive was that Yi was calling for the ball all night. He wanted to shoot. When he drilled a three from the top of the key with about 3:20 left in the game to cut Minnesota’s lead to 92-90, Yi emphatically thumped his chest. It was just a surreal sight – the otherwise mild mannered Yi finally looking like a go-to guy in an NBA game.

And it wasn’t just scoring. Yi was active on the glass, grabbing 8 boards, and fighting against some pretty tenacious rebounders in Love and Jefferson.

Unfortunately, the Nets couldn’t fully reap the benefits of having a big man who could shoot out on the floor because Brook Lopez was just so bad all night. It’s forgivable given just how good Brook has been this season, but Lopez looked off from the get-go, botching a couple of lob passes from Devin Harris in the post. He did have a nice passing game going early (7 assists total), especially with Courtney Lee (20 points, 8-16 shooting, 3-4 from three), who got two baseline dunks in the first quarter off dishes from Lopez. But he finished the game with 9 points, and was 5-10 from the free throw line – a routinely solid part of his game. One of those free throws would have cut the Minnesota lead to one with less than 30 seconds left in the game, making the foul a more logical call for the Nets (keeping it to one possession max). Just imagine what kind of two-man game could have been established if Brook was banging around in the post and if Yi was drilling his jumpers with the same efficiency? That dream scenario will have to wait at least another game. Then again, the Nets have rarely been able to put together a complete game this season, with all of their key guys contributing at the same time, for all four quarters.

Read a few more thoughts after the jump.

  • Devin Harris had a nice comeback game himself. After really struggling the past two games, Devo finished with 23 points on 8-17 shooting and 8 assists. He seemed to have an extra bounce in his step while taking on Johnny Flynn. Unfortunately, Flynn was game, going off for 22 points (but only 5 in the second half). Towards the end, Harris fouled Flynn on a breakaway towards the rim (Flynn had two guys down the court already and could have avoided contact altogether if he just passed it up), and Devin looked a bit choppy with Flynn while he was shooting his free throws.
  • Keyon Dooling continues to be a positive force on this roster. With Rafer Alston out with a sore back, Dooling, who may end up struggling with his hip injury all season, scored 12 points off the bench, including a three that tied the game at 74 towards the end of the third quarter. For those who pay attention to +/- in the context of basketball, Dooling had a +15 – in a four point game, that’s huge.
  • Courtney Lee was struggling with his jumper early, but turned it on in the second half, including a clutch three with a minute left in the game and the shot clock expiring, cutting Minnesota’s lead to one. Maybe I’m crazy, but I just get the sense that if he keeps shooting, he’ll eventually work his way out of this slump.
  • While the pundits are going to focus on the fact the Nets lost again, to a team with a bad record, I think it’s safe to say the T’Wolves are a dramatically different team than what we saw in late October. Kevin Love alone makes them tough to contend in the paint and on the glass. I think as the season goes on, the T’Wolves are going to be better than some people thought they were going to be a month ago.
  • I think Josh Boone just officially sealed his fate at the end of the Nets bench after tonight. He resembled “Zombie Boone” tonight as he’s being referred to by some in Twitter-land. He missed a couple of shots under the rim in the first quarter, and was outplayed by both Yi and Tony Battie in his short 8 minutes of action.
  • Finally, on that reversal call in the fourth quarter, I initially lost my mind because I thought the Nets had blown a timeout thinking they had the ball back with 25 seconds and then the refs ended up giving the ball back to Minnesota. Fortunately, the refs restored my faith in humanity when they ruled the break in action an “official” timeout, giving the Nets an extra TO to play with. And yes, the call, as the replays showed, was the right one, but if you start screwing with a team’s timeouts in the final minutes of a game, that’s when instant replay is a disaster. Fortunately, for all parties involved, it didn’t come to that.