The New Jersey Nets blew a 23-point lead at home to the Washington Wizards on Thursday night before retaking the lead and holding on long enough to end an eight-game losing streak, winning 97-89.
The Nets may have struggled lately and were winless in December, so it goes almost without saying that a contest with one of the league’s worst defensive teams was just what the doctor ordered to get back on track.
Avery Johnson’s team looked like a different side at times against the Wizards, dominating the first half and showing a high level of energy that almost seemed out of place considering their record.
The problem, as has been the case all year, is a complete lack of consistency coupled with an inability to play 48 minutes of solid basketball. It was a Jekyll and Hyde performance, but when you’re 6-19 and at the bottom of your conference, you’ll take it, even if it means having to overlook losing a mammoth lead.
Devin Harris had 29 points and nine assists, Brook Lopez added 18 points in 26 minutes and Kris Humphries grabbed 17 rebounds and chipped in with a dozen points in the victory.
After a good performance in a losing effort to the Lakers was followed up with an uninspired shooting display against the 76ers, the Nets were much more effective early on against the Wizards.
Sure, they fell off in the third quarter as Washington rallied when Brook Lopez was on the bench with four fouls, but overall there were positives to take for the first time in what seems like forever.
The Nets came into the game averaging just 92.7 points a game—second worst in the league—but they got a respite against Gilbert Arenas and the defensively toothless Wizards, who are 0-12 on the road and allowing 106 points per game overall.
New Jersey ran out to an early lead and only really looked back in the second half, using a 13-0 run to fuel a season-high 32 points in the first quarter.
They raced out to a 15-4 advantage in the opening stages of the game and they led by as many as 16 in the first quarter that grew to 23 in the second.
The Nets’ up-tempo style of play led to easy buckets and three-on-one opportunities, and while they were easily the more aggressive of the two teams in the early stages, they were also better at getting back into a defensive set in transition.
At times, Avery Johnson’s Nets looked more like Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks utilizing that run-and-gun Euro-ball style of seven-second offense.
They shot 49 percent from the field in the first half, forced 14 turnovers and out-rebounded the horribly out-of-sorts Wizards 25-17. If New Jersey had finished the half a little better, the advantage could have been much more, but a 55-38 lead over their banged up opponents was certainly well deserved.
The lead evaporated to six as Kirk Hinrich took the game by the scruff of the neck after the interval, but the Nets—helped by the big lead, no doubt—were able to initially weather the storm.
It wasn’t pretty, though. They weren’t able to convert on second chance opportunities, couldn’t clean up the defensive glass and too often used up the majority of the shot clock, only to find as few open options as when they settled into the half-court offense.
Part of the reason why the Nets, minus Anthony Morrow (sidelined for a couple weeks with a hamstring injury), were able to succeed, though, was the absence of Washington’s John Wall (knee tendinitis), who has averaged 15.8 points and 8.4 assists this season. The first-rounder, who has six double-doubles this season, has now missed nine of his last 16 games, and he was certainly missed on both ends of the floor.
I’m not sure exactly what this says about the Nets, that they were able to barely succeed against an injury-depleted team who didn’t seem to care, but that is a moot point now.
Wall was joined on the sidelines by Andray Blatche (left knee soreness) and former Net Yi Jianlian (right knee sprain) as well as Josh Howard, who will miss considerable time with a torn ACL.
A lineup of Wall, Hinrich, Arenas, Blatche and McGee would have posed a different set of problems, but the Nets did just about enough right, especially in the first half.
On an individual note for the Nets, Devin Harris looked more assertive driving to the basket, and while he started 0-for-4, he was at the heart of everything good that the Nets did in the first half. He finished shooting 7-for-25 but he got to the line 17 times and worked his tail off. He did miss too many shots, but he played 41 minutes, he was aggressive and he moved his feet on defense and that paid off.
Lopez started off like his usual productive self when he was on the court, especially in taking advantage of the matchup with Javale McGee.
His footwork was good on soft pivot moves and he showed versatility both in going hard to the hoop and showing off his jump hook. The big problem, however, was a fourth foul 60 seconds into the second half that kept him from contributing for the entire rest of the period and the first 2:23 of the fourth.
In addition, Favors was stealing balls and tipping back missed shots before he also ran into foul trouble, Outlaw was rolling off of screens on the perimeter and blocking shots on defense and Humphries was alley-ooping 40-foot lob passes. Humphries’ biggest contributions came on the glass from start to finish, but he also blocked a shot in the paint in the final two minutes.
A win is a win, and the Nets can take some things out of it. Their 47 free throws were a season high and that, along with their first-half energy, is an encouraging sight. Now they just have to try and continue this trend, play four consecutive quarters of basketball and execute on offense.
On a side note, combo-guard Sasha Vujacic, who came to the Nets on Wednesday in a three-team trade, was on the bench because Terrence Williams still hasn’t officially completed his physical, but he is likely to be in the lineup tomorrow in Toronto.
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