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The Roar

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Three nights with the Brooklyn Nets, on the road to nowhere

A new breed of Laker is ready to take the NBA by storm (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Expert
2nd March, 2016
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In the dog days of February and March, there’s something almost masochistic about following a really bad NBA team.

Not quite the sporting equivalent of the rubber-necking of motorists rolling past an accident but there’s something nonetheless oddly enticing about watching a team inexorably death-march its way across the NBA landscape.

And so your correspondent finds himself – over the course of a three-game road series – charting the fortunes and otherwise of the Brooklyn Nets, a team so far down the league standings that daylight itself is but a mere pinprick at the other end of an unfathomably dark tunnel.

With nothing, not even the allure of draft picks (thanks to former GM Billy King giving away the next 257 first rounders to Boston. OK, three. But still.) to sustain them, the Nets are faced with an unusual challenge in the modern NBA – how do you get players to keep playing hard in the face of such bleak circumstances?

As it turns out, it’s a complicated answer.

BROOKLYN AT PHOENIX, FEBRUARY 25

An hour before tip-off at the Talking Stick Resort Arena and such is the speed with which Nets swingman Joe Johnson had been waived, his name is still on the Nets starting five on the media information sheet.

Indeed, the veteran swingman had been at Nets shootaround earlier in the day before being told the Brooklyn ballclub was releasing the seven-time All-Star.

Nets interim coach Tony Brown was disappointed but philosophical about losing Johnson.

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“I’m a Joe Johnson fan. Ever since I’ve been with the team, going on one-and-a-half years, he’s been one of the most professional that I’ve been around for a veteran guy that’s been in the league for 10 years.

“He’s quiet but he’s a leader on the court; he’s a very good teammate and he did whatever we asked of him. So that part of him I’m definitely going to miss.

“There’s no better guys that get an opportunity to go maybe seek out a team to play for when they have championship aspirations or deep in the playoff type of ball clubs.

“I wish him nothing but the best. I’m a little sad that he’s not going to be around and I’d like to run plays for him, but I have the utmost respect for him. I feel like I gained a friend since I’ve been here.”

It’s 60s/70s night and judging by the dismal crowd – barely 1000 people 30 mins before the start of the game – more than a few have decided to skip a disco redux.

Or, it could just be that the starting lineups make for such depressing reading: PHX – PJ Tucker, Tyson Chandler, Devin Booker, Ronnie Price and Kris Humphries (!) BKN – Bojan Bogdanovic, Thad Young, Brook Lopez, Wayne Ellington and Donald Sloan.

So not exactly a Murderer’s Row for either team then.

The teams have combined to win just 29 games thus far this season and it shows in a scrappy first quarter, the contest resembling little more than a glorified pick-up game in both appearance and intent.

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Even from the secondary media row on the mezzanine level, you can hear playcalls and shoes squeaking, such is the lack of atmosphere. Exam halls and libraries are louder.

Everyone jokes about Boston fans being more invested in the Nets this year but like all jokes there’s a grain of truth to that with a keen Celtics fan spotted wearing a Garnett jersey and cheering on every Suns basket and every Nets miss. So he’ll have no voice by the end of this, if the first six minutes is anything to go by.

Even the refs appear to be bored, whistling Alex Len for an inbounds violation after a Brooklyn basket, neatly summing up the Suns’ decrepit season.

And so of course Brooklyn takes a 34-29 lead into the second period because, well, the Suns couldn’t guard a locked door with a loaded gun and a rottweiler.

Both teams continue this ineptitude throughout the second period, with Phoenix again putting a late-quarter collapse to good use, trailing 66-45 at the half and hearing a cascade of boos as they trudged to the locker room.

Indeed such was Brooklyn’s uncharacteristic dominance, the Nets enjoyed seven first-half blocked shots, despite averaging less than 4 per game.

Whatever both interim coaches (which tells you all you need to know about both teams’ fortunes this year) told their respective teams at half-time didn’t exactly work. Or maybe it did. It was kinda hard to tell.

To wit, Brooklyn extended its lead to 20 half-way through the third and it was in no way at all responsible for it.

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It might have been appropriate to say Phoenix shot itself in the foot, but given some of the jumpers clanging off the rim, they’d have probably missed that shot too.

In one particular timeout the Suns dancers came out dancing to Great Balls of Fire, which, while not ironic, was at the very least certainly guilty of flagrant false advertising.

In another damning stat, the Nets average 96.6 points. They scored 90 through three quarters. Execrable, Phoenix. No other word for it.

The fourth quarter was merely perfunctory. Filing paperwork couldn’t be any less mundane. The only real interest remained in the final margin and whether former Net Mirza Teletovic could beat his previous career-high of 34 points, set while with Brooklyn (against Dallas) in 2014. He didn’t, ending up with 30. Excitement Central right?

Even a late run from the Suns barely raised a ripple from a thoroughly browbeaten crowd, Brooklyn easing to a 116-106 win, leaving Phoenix interim coach Earl Watson still without a win and contemplating his own coaching mortality. Such is the lot of an interim coach of a lottery-bound team. He may well lead them to the Promised Land of Ben Simmons but he may not get to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

After the game, Brown alluded to Brooklyn’s new-found insistence on pushing the pace to be crucial to what ended up being a surprisingly comfortable road win.

“I think the pace of the game, especially early, the ball movement we had especially when some of the guys off the bench came in, gave us the opportunity to get out in the open court,” Brown said after the game.

“We attacked the rim, made good plays off the dribble and we had some good contributions across the board.

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“Obviously Bogdan played well in the first half, had 20 points, but his shots were in the flow of the offence, and we were able to get out and get a big lead.

“I thought our defence was engaged, they’re going to make shots and I thought we made some of those shots really tough and I thought off the bench Markel Brown gave us a huge lift.

“Having that defensive presence, being able to get in the bonus, helped us to close out the ballgame.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvCz7q7A9qI&spfreload=10

BROOKLYN AT LA CLIPPERS – FEBRUARY 29

Pre-game and LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers is in an expansive mood – even if the questions from the assembled media aren’t exactly forthcoming.

“What, did you all attend Oscars parties last night? I know I saw JA (Adande, ESPN journalist) at one (laughs).”

Rivers also thought long-time Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler – he of the famous Lawler’s Law, first team to 100 points wins the game – receiving a star on the Hollywood walk of fame was “pretty cool”.

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With the Nets coming into the Staples Centre riding a two-game road winning streak following a hard-fought 98-96 triumph over Utah after the triumph over Phoenix, Rivers had already called for star playmaker Chris Paul to be more assertive, especially against a Brooklyn outfit playing at a faster pace under interim coach Tony Brown.

With Blake Griffin still out, veteran Paul Pierce gets the start and promptly knocks down his first two shots, despite the effects of gravity and a 17-year NBA career ensuring his feet never really leave the ground.

Meanwhile, Chris Paul appears to have taken Rivers’ advice, if not to heart, then at least paid it some heed, racking up four assists in the opening quarter as the hosts take a narrow 29-27 lead over a surprisingly frisky Nets outfit.

Brooklyn continues to provide more than nuisance value, keeping it close despite a glacially-slow step-through circus shot from Pierce that provided nearly as much comic relief as the poor fan who missed about 12 consecutive lay-ups during a time-out contest.

And for as much as the Nets want to push the pace, like all struggling teams it also leads to defensive transition problems, the Clippers showing their own brand of up-tempo play to ease ahead 54-50 at the long break.

In bizarre-yet-compelling scenes, the half-time intermission was taken up by the Clippers unveiling their new mascot, a Californian condor named Chuck. Which is all well and good until Clips owner Steve Ballmer decided to dunk off a mini-trampoline and hand out free red Converse Chuck Taylor basketball shoes. No, I don’t get it either but it’s his toy. Shoot your shot.

After a scoreless first half, Clippers forward Jeff Green – for whom the word enigmatic was almost certainly invented – woke up long enough to score a quick seven points in the opening minutes of the third quarter and promptly didn’t score again. Classic Uncle Jeff.

And still the Nets refuse to go quietly, Brook Lopez keeping the visitors’ nose in front.

If nothing else, Brown has this team playing hard, even when there is very little to play for. Kudos just for that.

Jamal Crawford shows age has not wearied either his legs or his jumper to start the fourth quarter and despite the best efforts of Lopez, the Clippers stretch their advantage to nine, 95-86, with four minutes to play before coach Brown mercifully calls timeout. Three minutes too late really.

In the end, the Clippers’ firepower proved too much and Brooklyn’s lack of fourth quarter scoring options proved too little, three thunderous alley oops from Paul to DeAndre Jordan the icing on a relatively underwhelming LA cake that finished 105-95.

Indeed, it could well be argued the breaks in play provided more entertainment, what with the aforementioned shoe giveaway and a fan winning a new car after banking in a half-court shot.

Rivers was quick to praise the Nets for their competitive play, even if he inadvertently damned them at the same time.

“They [Brooklyn] just played free. I think when you are playing a team that is out of the playoffs, if you don’t make it really hard for them, then they are going to have fun. That is how they played. They don’t have a lot to play for, except for careers.

“I think that to make those teams go away, you have to make it a hard night defensively for them. I didn’t think we did that. We did it down the stretch, but we didn’t do it all game.”

Meanwhile, Brown, who had just had his two-game road winning streak snapped, was already looking ahead to the following night’s contest against the Lakers.

“The movement we like was not there. We are just a little slow getting into our execution. We give them (the Clippers) credit. They played well down the stretch. We had some tough shots, tough violations and obviously some turnovers.

“We are a team that is constantly learning, and this is another learning situation. We just have to keep fighting.”

BROOKLYN AT LA LAKERS – MARCH 1

LA Lakers coach Byron Scott apparently likes a challenge.

He likes challenging his young players even more.

The question then, is does challenging a player about his confidence levels backfire and further ruin an already fragile psyche?

Scott thinks today’s players are too soft so the point may well be moot.

Speaking ahead of the clash with league cellar co-tenant Brooklyn, Scott readily admitted he considered his players overly sensitive.

“I messed with (Lakers rookie Anthony Brown) this morning about his confidence in a way so we’ll see what happens.

“I’m hoping it doesn’t mess him up, I’m hoping he’ll try to prove me wrong, he said that I called him out so let’s do it, which is good, but I want to see it tonight in the game. We’ll see if it works.

“I hope he took it as a challenge, that’s how we took it back in the day, I did it in a playful way, you know I’m not that much of a monster (smiles). I just did it in a playful way to see what kind of reaction I’d get from him.

“Everybody takes it differently so you just have to work out which buttons to push. I like pushing buttons. Because it’s fun, I like seeing how much people can take, I want to see if they can accept the challenge or not. To me, like I said, I’ll do it in a playful way but I still want to see what they’re made of.

“Calling them sensitive would like calling them soft right? Yeah. I think they’re too sensitive.”

Got it. Challenges. He likes them. Duly noted.

Meanwhile, Nets coach Tony Brown is contemplating the NBA’s life without Kobe Bryant, who will miss the game with a sore shoulder, much to Brown’s disappointment.

“Even though Kobe isn’t playing, I would’ve liked to have seen him one more time but we still have to approach the game in a businesslike (manner), they’ve struggled just like we have and everyone is looking for a W. We have to do what we want to do at both ends of the court if we want to get a win.

“Fierce competitor. He’s obviously played at the highest level of the game, he’s very well deserving of a Hall of Fame selection when that time comes.

“Just such a fierce competitor, thinking back when I was with the Portland TrailBlazers and he was right there in his prime with Shaq … not a lot of good memories there (laughs) but we had some good battles with them.

“Just his overall will for a game, competing and keeping himself ready year-in and year-out, there’s not very many guys who can match that.”

The game gets underway with the Lakers starters holding a combined nine seasons of experience between them – seven of those belong to Roy Hibbert – and it shows, the Nets repeatedly pushing aside their inexperienced hosts in the early going.

But the youthful – and more than occasionally errant – exuberance of the Lakers allows Los Angeles to claim a narrow 24-19 lead after one-quarter as the effects of the Nets’ four previous road games starts to bite.

It was more of the same in the second quarter, some nice transition work from the Lakers seeing them extent their slender advantage to 58-50 at the half.

Rookie Anthony Brown opens third quarter proceedings with a long jumper that drops (CONFIDENCE KLAXON) and the Lakers are suddenly alive, passing crisply, defending (gasp!) competently and capping a quick run with lovely transition work that sees rookie guard D’Angelo Russell splash a wing triple to extend the margin to 71-59.

But no sooner had Scott benched Russell (a season-long pattern that has enraged Lakers fans no end) after his three-pointer (BE LESS CONFIDENT KLAXON), the Nets stormed back into the game with a 15-8 run and cutting the deficit to just five with one quarter to play.

The teams traded baskets to open the final period, a thunderous dunk from Larry Nance Jr off a pretty feed from Marcelo Huertas sparking the restless Staples crowd back to life.

Meanwhile, despite the benching, the quicksilver Russell moved easily past his previous career-high total of 27 points. Regardless of what Scott says or does, this kid has an extremely bright future in the NBA.

The final three minutes of the game was a neat encapsulation of Brooklyn’s road trip: lots to like about the effort as they cut the margin to just one point, but some abysmal shot selection and momentary lapses on defence allowed Russell to hit back-to-back, game-sealing threes to take his career-high to 37 points, including eight-of-twelve from international waters.

The incandescent rookie would eventually finish with 39 points, a regular season rookie high for the Lakers franchise, surpassed only by Magic Johnson’s iconic 42-point game in the clinching Game 6 of the 1980 Finals.

For Brooklyn, the 107-101 scoreline condemned the Nets to their 44th defeat of the season, and left the visitors 2-3 on this particular west coast road swing, with still two more games to come against Denver and Minnesota.

As the Nets players trudged to the locker room following the defeat, one could only sympathise with their no-win situation.

Play hard, win or lose, and nobody really cares.

That can’t be easy, even if you balance that against the fact that yes, they’re in the NBA and there’s a bunch of players who would step over their own mothers to be in that situation.

If, as Byron Scott would surely agree with, winning is its own reward, then losing without hope surely comes with a price that even the most cynical would baulk at paying.

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