When the New Jersey Nets came out of the gates sluggish and gave up 29 first quarter points to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it seemed we might be in for a long night.
The struggle continued until about the halfway point of the second quarter, when the Nets woke up after going down 12 points and put on a run to get the score close again.
Thanks to a 38 percent first half shooting percentage, New Jersey went into the break down 54-48. Brook Lopez proceeded to rip into his teammates at halftime, imploring them to pick up the intensity and find a way to get a win.
Led by their center, the Nets did just that, winning 103-101 with Lopez hitting the game-winning shot with just over one second left.
It was a significant step in Lopez's development, as he displayed leadership abilities he was not necessarily known to have. Not only did he give an impassioned speech to his fellow Nets, he backed up his words by scoring 18 second half points to finish with 28.
Lopez was decidedly more demonstrative than we have seen him in the past, calling for the ball then ensuring he would not be denied when making a move to the basket.
He also got to the free-throw line 10 times, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out three assists.
The third-year pro has responded to his fourth quarter benching in Phoenix two weeks ago by averaging 25 PPG and shooting 57 percent over his last seven games.
There's still a long way to go in this season and his career, but we could be seeing the emergence of Lopez as an elite player in this league. He will need to improve his rebounding to take that step, and we can be sure that coach Avery Johnson is letting him know that.
As a team, the Nets shot 51 percent in the second half, and were particularly effective when it all mattered in the fourth—a period in which they hit 57 percent of their shots.
It's the kind of late-game execution we've been waiting for all year.
New Jersey also got big time contributions from Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar and Kris Humphries.
Harris and Humphries both had double-doubles, with Harris scoring 14 points while dishing out 10 assists and Humphries netting 11 points to go along with 11 rebounds.
For Harris, his assist total is even more impressive when you consider that he had zero turnovers. He also knocked down both of his three-point attempts.
Morrow came through with 16 points on six of 12 shooting, and it's clear that the team missed his presence on the floor in the time he was injured. His three-point shot isn't there yet (1-for-6 against the Cavs), but there's little doubt that it will be there before long.
Farmar continues to impress off the bench, scoring 11 points and hitting some clutch shots with less than five minutes left in the game.
Interestingly, after getting off to a very hot start in the first half by scoring eight points and grabbing nine rebounds, Derrick Favors saw very little action in the second half.
It was actually Favors who sparked the turnaround halfway through the second quarter when he provided great energy blocking shots, crashing the boards and finishing around the rim. He could also be seen pointing out floor positions for his teammates.
He started the third quarter on the court, but was yanked after blowing a defensive assignment and failing to box out on a Cleveland free throw attempt after less than a minute on the floor. He saw just four minutes of action in the game's final 24 minutes.
We'll have to see what happens, but no one can really question Johnson when he makes moves like this considering how Lopez responded after his benching earlier this month.
Johnson seems to be hitting all the right buttons, as he has this team playing hard and competing every night. If they can continue to make plays late in games, we could be in for a very good and enjoyable second half of the season.
The Nets came into this week needing to improve in three key areas: opponent free throws, opponent offensive rebounds and turnovers.
For one game at least, they checked two off the list, as Cleveland attempted only 24 free throws and the Nets improved tremendously in the turnover department—giving the ball away just 10 times.
Are we starting to see Brook Lopez take the next step in terms of becoming an elite NBA player?
The Cavaliers were still able to come away with 11 offensive boards, so New Jersey definitely needs to work on that, but two out of three isn't bad.
The Nets also need to make sure they don't overlook teams to open games like they did Cleveland. You never know how a struggling team such as the Cavs is going to play.
Sometimes a bad stretch gets to players and they lack energy. At the same time, they're professionals and are not very fond of losing.
In the end, all that matters is that the Nets won, but they need to steer clear of the kind of lackadaisical performance they put on at the beginning of the game. The Nets haven't exactly proved themselves to be world beaters, so they should not be looking past anyone.
New Jersey now has a day off before they host Memphis Wednesday night to close out their homestand. A win would put them at 4-1 over that stretch.