The Nets are old. The Nets are hurt. The Nets are bad.
Excuse it how some will, despite the final score, the Bobcats more than convincingly won this game against a team many have predicted to make waves in the playoffs. Charlotte nearly blew it in the final quarter but it could not undo the three previous quarters of Nets annihilation.
It was weird to see, somehow. Even though I was aware of how poorly the Nets had been playing recently, I had a feeling we had seen this plot before: Struggling team of veterans on skid pull together to put pesky young Bobcats in their place. And although I predicted a Bobcats win, it feels very unusual to think the Bobcats are going to beat an experienced team. This has not been that kind of team for years now.
For about two years now, the Bobcats have been trying to bring about a culture change in the organization. The process has resulted in two different head coaches and roster changes that have revolved around hardworking young talent. The results were mixed last season as a Bobcats team rank with guard scorers had little offensive plan to go on and worse defense. This year, the Bobcats excised their chief chemistry problem (Ben Gordon, via DNP-CDs) and have utilized a balanced ball distribution attack through screens on offense as their defense has rounded into better shape. And so the culture change has to this point resulted in a team where everyone seems to buy in to the plan. The performance has been inconsistent on offense but the effort is there and the Bobcats have gotten by on their defense enough to overcome their poor offense to the tune of a .500 record.
And they did it again tonight against supposed playoff contenders in the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn wasn't completely banged up to start the game as they returned starter Deron Williams to the floor after missing time due to an ankle sprain he's been fighting for months now. He showed some tenderness with his left foot and struggled early, starting the game off losing the ball to Kemba Walker.
Both teams got off to quick starts, though in different ways. The Nets took advantage of their shooting to hit four of five 3-pointers over the Bobcats' outstretched arms (if you want to count Andray Blatche's heave from 3/4 quarter as a three attempt, go ahead, but I'm not). In spite of a nearly absent interior offense in the first quarter, the Nets hit 7-of-11 shots outside of the paint. Charlotte got an explosive Kemba Walker to lead them on offense with 12 points on seven shots. I had been planning on doing a breakdown of Walker's recent scoring problems but tonight's performance put my mind to rest for the moment. The Nets defense was pungent all night and gave Walker and the rest of the team plenty of lanes to get to rim from and space for jump shots from midrange and from deep.
The Bobcats threatened to pull away in the second quarter but couldn't quite get much space. The Nets kept up by connecting on their free throws at a better rate and by taking care of the ball better and expanding their shots into the paint and not just the area outside it. In a rather unfortunate accident, Deron Williams rolled his recovering ankle on Kemba Walker's foot upon Williams' landing after taking a three and foul from Walker. Williams did not return to the game.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats continued to pound the paint at an absurd clip. They made one lone field goal from outside the paint in the second quarter and nearly everything else was within four feet of the basket. Charlotte hit three of their nine free throw attempts and still outscored Brooklyn by two points in the quarter. I cannot overstate how bad their interior defense was. It existed in theory but there was nothing there. Kevin Garnett is a mere shell of himself, a vessel through which food and air may pass but little else. His defensive rotations were late and he's not the same player. He couldn't even ruffle Cody Zeller's feathers much. Jeff Adrien pretty much dominated the Nets' front line with offensive rebounds, putbacks and cleaning up some Bobcats misses. It was so bad at one point that Anthony Tolliver looked off a pass to drive past Shaun Livingston and then blew by a late rotating Garnett, who didn't even contest the shot, for the layup.
At halftime, the Bobcats outscored the Nets 53-50 on the scoreboard and 36-14 on points in the paint.
The writing was on the wall for a Bobcats-dominant third quarter.
If Kevin Garnett's defense hadn't been exposed enough in the first half, it would leave nothing to the imagination after the third quarter. Josh McRoberts absolutely left Garnett in the dust on a drive to the rack on one play. Bismack Biyombo dunked right on KG's mug shortly afterward. And not too long after that, Biyombo had one of his best offensive moves I've ever seen from him, a soft lay-in as he fell down from a foul by Garnett. Garnett was utterly frustrated, to the point of fouling Kemba Walker from the Nets' own free throw line to stop a fast break. All told, "The Kid" finished with more fouls (five) than points (four).
The Bobcats went on a 13-0 run towards the beginning of the third quarter to leap to a 14-point lead, much led by their defense's pressing for turnovers. Charlotte ended up forcing the Nets into eight turnovers in the quarter to their own two. Though Charlotte didn't quite get complacent, Brooklyn got themselves back into the game starting with Joe Johnson corner three. Tired of the Bobcats getting to the rim at will, Nets coach Jason Kidd and his staff had the team switch to zone defense. Kemba Walker immediately hit a three and followed a minute later with another. He had a trio of treys in the third quarter alone. The Nets kept pace with Andray Blatche outdueling Josh McRoberts for rebounds and by backing him under the basket for layups or fouls. A Joe Johnson three from above the break put the Bobcats' lead back at 13 to end the quarter.
We've seen far too many leads larger than 13 evaporate to have been comfortable with 12 minutes remaining, but the Nets' ineptitude in defending the paint seemed to be as good a guarantee you could get. Not so.
The Bobcats' trademark fourth quarter offensive struggles returned, as they always do. Ball movement was choppy whereas in the previous three quarters it had been much smoother from inside-out and around the perimeter. For all the concern about Jeff Taylor's confidence, he seemed almost too confident in his drives to the rim, trying to force layups over three defenders a few times. Needless to say, they didn't work. Gerald Henderson's midrange game wasn't delivering in isolation from the midrange. The Bobcats suddenly couldn't get to the rim despite dominating the offensive glass.
Ultimately it seems Clifford may have held off on bringing the starters back in a little too long. As much as I enjoyed Jeff Adrien's rebounding, he was more or less powerless to stop Andray Blatche, who had 10 fourth quarter points and three offensive rebounds in the period, all of which were converted into buckets. Biyombo didn't see a second in the fourth quarter despite having an excellent scoring game (for him) and the usual defensive effort. He had some foul trouble but could have been brought back safely at some point in the fourth to help slow down Blatche.
The Bobcats' offensive struggles came to a head as the Nets made the deficit only six points. Ramon Sessions lost the ball out of bounds on the sideline on a trap and on the next possession he again ran the offense and missed a twisting reverse layup at the rim. Blatche hit a layup to cut the score to 93-89. Finally they decide to have Walker, the guy with 29 points on 20 shots, take the ball upcourt. Despite being mugged on clear intentional fouls, play continued on. Double-teamed, Walker passed to Sessions, who then lost the ball on another defensive trap. The ensuing foul set up a series of events in which the Bobcats forced and subsequently lost a jump ball and then gave up another Blatche layup to make it a two-point game.
Forced to foul with 7.1 seconds left, the Nets sent Walker to the free-throw line, where he closed it out with two makes.
It was a close ending, which is weird considering one team spent three quarters looking far superior, but so it goes. The Nets were hampered by injuries, sure, but the Bobcats also did an exceptional job limiting Brooklyn's usual offensive culprits to subpar games, with the exception of Blatche. The Bobcats ended up with 17 offensive rebounds to the Nets' six, and with 52 points in the paint (a season high) to the Nets' 34.
In short: good win.
Rookie Report: Another game of ups and downs for Cody Zeller. He couldn't hit that midrange jumper but fought hard in the trenches for offensive rebounds, got a putback and finished a shot through contact for an and-one opportunity. Defensively, he was mobile in the pick and roll with good positioning, plus he didn't give up much to Kevin Garnett's animated corpse.