Once again, the Nets play like winners for 45 minutes
If the Brooklyn Nets intend to make any kind of playoff run, they're going to need to close out games like Tuesday night's matchup at the Barclays Center against a compromised Los Angeles Lakers team.
Dwight Howard, the team's center and Moby Dick to Nets general manager Billy King's Ahab, missed the game with a shoulder injury. And Pau Gasol, the embattled forward who stepped in and played well in Howard's absence, injured his foot with 3:51 to go and the game tied at 78.
Not only were the Nets the better team, playing at home, but they have, in Brook Lopez, a built-in advantage over most teams on the interior, and certainly over a team missing its two most important interior players. And the Nets found Lopez three more times, getting him to 31 points, and allowing the Nets to take an 83-82 lead on a Lopez free throw with 2:32 left.
From there, it all fell apart. Gerald Wallace had already cost the Nets a possession with a turnover. But the Nets failed to stop the Lakers on their final five offensive possessions. The Lakers scored on an Antawn Jamison feed from Steve Nash, on a layup from Kobe Bryant that Lopez blocked on the way down, on a wide-open jumper from Earl Clark when Lopez committed to defending a penetrating Nash and nobody came close to rotating over to Clark.
Still, the Nets only trailed 88-83 with a minute left, had the ball, and therefore, some hope. Gerald Wallace, though, took an ill-advised three that missed. A scramble for the rebound led to the ball getting knocked out of bounds. The Nets were given possession, though replays showed they probably shouldn't have.
Given another opportunity, the Nets promptly fumbled the inbounds pass, turning it over. Then, for the first time down the stretch, they played effective defense, forcing the Lakers to use almost the entire shot clock. With three seconds left on the shot clock, and 24 on the game clock, Kobe Bryant had the ball more than 30 feet from the basket. A poor shot or turnover were the only logical results, which would have given the Nets the ball back with enough time to make it interesting, at least.
And then, for no apparent reason, Deron Williams reached in and fouled Bryant.
The foul was worse than one that simply gave the Lakers two free throws. The Nets had yet to foul enough to put the Lakers at the line automatically. Instead, the shot clock was reset to 14, giving the Lakers possession and the chance to milk more clock, absent another foul.
A second later, Williams fouled Steve Nash, the best foul shooter in league history. This time, he had to; but only because he'd foolishly fouled Bryant a second before.
Nash made them both to essentially ice the game.
It was not a great night for the highly-touted backcourt of Williams (5-for-13 shooting, six assists five turnovers) and Joe Johnson (4-for-15 shooting). Yet Lopez, who was the principal reason the Nets were even positioned to win the game, tried to take the blame himself in the postgame locker room, while Johnson left without speaking to reporters.
"I feel like the responsibility is on myself," a downcast Lopez said following the loss. "I made poor decisions offensively, and defensively I didn’t guard the pick and roll very well. [Jamison] got to the basket easily and [Clark] got that pick and pop jumper that really changed the game."
Really, though, even average games from the Nets' backcourt would have been enough to win this. But more concerning is that even with better performances from Williams and Johnson, the Nets are going to be locked in some close games against opponents better than the short-handed Lakers. They'll need to do much better in the key moments if they expect to win any of those games.
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