The Knicks demolish the Nets, and Avery Johnson’s gameplan

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Tyson Chandler dunks. (NBA.com)
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It's been a rough few weeks for the Brooklyn Nets.

Once 11-4, discussed as Team 1A in New York, with a rivalry set to blossom, the Nets have fallen on hard times. They are 2-8 since then, and fell to 13-12 overall after a listless 100-86 loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night.

That the Knicks have a winning formula is clear to anyone who has seen them by now, and they employed it again on Wednesday night. There's an efficient, high-scoring offensive night from Carmelo Anthony (31 points, 12-for-22 shooting). There's a large number of three-point attempts (29) and solid percentage of makes (38 percent, even with Steve Novak missing the game due to flu-like symptoms). An efficient offensive game from Tyson Chandler (7-for-11) and limiting turnovers (seven in the game) completes the package. Other than Raymond Felton's shooting woes (4-for-15), their play looks like a template for a very successful season.

The Nets seem to have no such template. Because they play a slow pace, it is deceptively easy to mistake a solid offense and terrible defense for a solid defense and terrible offense.

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But the Nets are still, despite their recent slump, ninth-best in the league in offensive efficiency. It is that 18th in defensive efficiency that is killing them, and the loss to the Knicks did little to change that. A defense that allows 100 points in such a slow-paced game is not performing well enough to win.

The problem is two-fold. This offense is not performing at the top-three level it needs to if the Nets are going to compensate for their defensive limitations. Something has to get better.

What has to be disturbing for the Nets is how often their limitations have manifested themselves after halftime, when coaches presumably have a chance to adjust to what they're doing, and Avery Johnson should theoretically be able to do the same.

The Nets trailed the Knicks at halftime, 52-48. But the Knicks outscored the Nets in the second half, 48-38, and even this is deceptively positive. The Nets led, 61-57, midway through the third quarter. From there, until 8:10 left in the fourth quarter, the Knicks outscored the Nets 25-7 to pull ahead, 82-68, and effectively put the game away. This was no burst; it was an extended period of subpar basketball on both ends.

“We’re just trying to stay alive right now,” Gerald Wallace said after the game. “Right now, we know the second half is our downfall. We play 24 minutes of great ball in the first half, and then it just seems like our next 12 minutes we’re kind of lost offensively and defensively."

This isn't a new phenomenon. The Nets led the Utah Jazz at the half, 57-44, on Monday; the Nets scored just 33 points in the second half of a 92-90 loss. Against the Detroit Pistons last Friday, the Nets took a 59-47 lead into halftime against a team that entered the game 7-17 overall, 2-11 on the road. But a Detroit run to open the third actually gave the Pistons the lead, and it took a pair of overtimes for the Nets to outlast Detroit at home. And back on December 9, the Nets scored 31 and 32 points in the first two quarters against Golden State, 19 and 20 in the final two quarters.

It is astonishing to see how quickly fortunes have turned for Avery Johnson, who just last month was the N.B.A. Coach of the Month. But now, Johnson is hearing public criticisms of his offense from his star point guard, Deron Williams. And his team is coming out of the locker room, following his instructions, and then falling to bits.

Zach Lowe made the point Wednesday night that given the balance of offensive and defensive talent, the fact that the Nets are 13-12 isn't surprising. It's essentially a 43-win pace, while the Nets were generally expected to finish around 45 wins.

But the Nets haven't played like a 43-win team this year. They played like a 60-win team for a month, and then like a 16-win team.

It's up to Johnson to figure out how to fix them, or else he could earn the remarkable coaching distinction of winning top monthly honors and getting fired in the same season.

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