Nets take important first step toward East’s open spots


This isn’t the first or last time that the far-fetched claim that the New Jersey Nets are viable candidates for a playoff spot this season will be made on this site. I believe it to be true, despite all of the evidence in front of us that has them bound for a trip to the lottery.

(Please, bear with me. I promise this is not one of those “media overreaction to one game” columns. I swear…I think.)

Now, I’m not saying that the playoffs are a certainty, or even a likelihood. I’ll admit that even an optimist would have to consider it a long shot, given the horrors we witnessed last year, all the turnover the team went through and the collective youth of the roster. But look around at the East for a second and see what I see.

We can safely assume that, barring any crippling injuries or blockbuster trades that drastically alter the landscape of the Eastern Conference, the Celtics, Heat, Magic, Bulls, Bucks and Hawks are locks for the postseason this year. That leaves two spots open for the following consortium: the Bobcats, Cavaliers, Knicks, Pacers, Pistons, Raptors, Sixers, Wizards and Nets. Does anyone feel comfortable handing the two remaining vacancies to any of those teams right now? After the Cavaliers were decimated and the Bobcats lost their starting point guard? Me neither.

Now, just because the opportunity is there doesn’t mean any of those teams deserve to feel great about themselves right now. Each of them has to go out and earn it and prove that they belong. The Nets took the first step toward that on Wednesday night.

Going into that game, I looked at it and said “if they’re going to compete this year, this is exactly the type of game they have to win.” It may have been asking a lot of a team that might still be trying to learn each other’s nicknames and get their handshakes right, but it wasn’t out of the question. The Nets have to take care of business more often than not against the East’s lower class, particularly at home, if things are going to start to change in 2011.

The Pistons are, by no means, a good team. Year two of the Ben Gordon-Charlie Villanueva project is still a work in progress that may never succeed. They have a gaping hole at power forward and the ancient Ben Wallace at center.

Like I said, if they’re going to turn things around this season, that’s a game the Nets have got to win.

They almost didn’t, of course. In the first half, the Nets lacked offensive fluidity, as it looked like everyone was still trying to figure out where they belonged on the court and how to best use their strengths to exploit the opponent when, to a man, they may not really know where all their strengths lie just yet.

In the third quarter, they showed their potential. Devin Harris, Terrence Williams and Jordan Farmar each took turns running the offense and making plays. Harris began to back up his stated commitment to driving toward the hoop this season, a goal he should be able to reach because of the Nets’ greater ability to stretch the floor. They displayed that, with two capable, athletic drivers at the top of the key, a skilled finisher down low in Brook Lopez and forwards who can hit face up jumpers, they have the potential to be a handful for opposing defenses.

Early in the fourth, the momentum shifted back to Detroit and didn’t seem like it was going to come back the Nets’ way. Ben Gordon dialed up his Vinnie Johnson impression as he and Richard Hamilton found quite a few holes in the Nets’ defense.

Desperate to get a stop, any stop, in the final six minutes of the game, Avery Johnson swallowed any pride he takes in his defense, and resorted to a “Hack-a-Ben” (Wallace) strategy that brought the Pistons’ offensive charge to a screeching halt. Wallace missed three straight free throws, including two airballs, and forced John Kuester’s hand in removing Wallace from the game.

This allowed the Nets to go smaller, playing Harris, Farmar, Williams and Anthony Morrow together. With three ball handlers on the floor at once, the Nets got their groove back. Farmar hit a three to get things going, then Harris went into attack mode, highlighted by an aggressive three-point play made possible by a foul drawn on Gordon.

Apr. 14, 2010 - Miami, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - epa02117211 New Jersey Nets guard Devin Harris (L) and and Miami Heat forward James Jones (R) fight for a loose ball during their game at the American Airlines arena in Miami, Florida, USA, 14 April 2010.

Still, it looked like the comeback might be too little, too late when another Harris drive hit a brick wall. He lost control of the ball and nearly forfeited the Nets’ possession with only 30 ticks left on the game clock. Harris, practicing what his head coach has been preaching, hit the deck to recover the loose ball and kicked it out to Morrow, he of the 46-percent career 3-point shooting clip. Doing what he was signed to do, he promptly sunk the go-ahead three.

Last year, Morrow isn’t there to take and make that shot. A year ago, Harris probably loses possession or the Nets fail to get a respectable look as their comeback attempt flounders.

Instead, the Nets dug in, hit their free throws, got just enough defensive stops – Villanueva still managed to make things interesting with a late three to bring the Nets lead down to a single point – to close out the win.

Clearly, the “whats” of the Nets’ win don’t add up to a sparkling performance. There was plenty that needs to be corrected, particularly on the defensive end, where Travis Outlaw looked over-matched at small forward and got in foul trouble, while the rest of the team yielded too many mid-range looks to the Pistons’ capable shooters. But it’s the “how” that was the positive takeaway from the all-new Nets’ debut.

They played with spunk, charisma and a dash of swagger down the stretch. The group seems to enjoy each other, perhaps a by-product of its week-long trip to Russia and China. Harris, the weary de facto leader of last year’s group, seemed rejuvenated. Williams played with a new-found confidence in his role and his abilities. The bench shared a genuine excitement about taking the first step toward ridding themselves of the specter of a 12-win campaign, a season many weren’t even around to see. Of almost equal importance, so did the 15,000+ that attended The Rock’s NBA grand opening, a group that included new owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

There is clearly plenty of teaching that Johnson and his coaching staff are going to have to undertake to truly turn this year’s group into a winner. But for anyone willing to give this brand-new group of Nets a clean slate and a little benefit of the doubt, Wednesday night brought more than a mere glimmer of hope and potential.

If the Nets young stars can align more often this season, don’t be surprised if the inviting Eastern Conference helps them grow up faster than anyone expected.

(Photo courtesy of YardBarker.com)

Tags: Avery Johnson Columns Detroit Pistons Devin Harris Mikhail Prokhorov Terrence Williams