The Brooklyn Nets cruise into town tonight for a 7:30 game televised locally on KGW and nationally on ESPN. The Nets are 41-29 with a 19-15 road record. They've won 3 of their last 4, 7 of their last 10. Most of those wins have come against sub-.500 opponents but that's little comfort to the 33-37 Trail Blazers.
The Nets are doing well in many respects. They've filled the two most precious positions in the modern NBA: point guard and center. Deron Williams (18 points, 8 assists) and Brook Lopez (19 points, 52% shooting) may not be the best players at their respective positions, but they've been in the conversation. Williams is seeing the ball less this season but is far more efficient with his possessions. Lopez is touching the ball more and is also getting more efficient. Together they form a one-two punch that has to worry the Blazers who are suspect defensively at point guard and center.
The middle-positions are more murky for the Nets. The original plan was to fold veteran stars Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace into a near-unstoppable starting lineup. Both players have under-performed. No longer the #1 option on his team, Johnson is putting up numbers not seen since his pre-stardom early 20's. He can be dangerous but most nights he looks average. Defense has abandoned him entirely. (Note: He's listed as day to day with a quad injury and did not play in Brooklyn's last outing.) Wallace still defends, at least, but he never touches the ball, never does anything with those rare touches, and you have to go back to the year he got booted out of Sacramento before you'll find such low production from him. The Nets have to be concerned that they're not getting their money's worth out of these two. Without support, Williams and Lopez aren't productive enough to take the team beyond "pretty good" territory.
On the bright side, reserve big man Andray Blatche is having a career season, finally breaking out of his Washington Wizards doldrums. He's shooting over 50% from the field after posting a 38% average last year. He's rebounding, drawing free throws, even playing defense. His biggest issue is consistency. He plays well when given long minutes and plenty of touches. He struggles in short shifts and often lets the game pass him by. But at least the Nets are getting more than their money's worth out of someone.
Not so Kris Humphries who, outside of a couple good outings per month, has been $8 million worth of "Ouch!" At this point he's a glorified rebounder off the bench, his spot taken by Reggie Evans, who has no pretensions to anything else but rebounding. Guards C.J. Watson and Marshon Brooks plus small forward Keith Bogans round out the rotation. They're decent--certainly better than Portland's reserves--but they were meant to eat minutes while the star starters rest, not make up for the poor performances of the players in front of them.
Against poor teams the Nets look mighty impressive. They can score 110 or hold you to 85, whichever is needed. The facade cracks against teams with powerful offenses. The Nets will still score 100 but they'll give up 108. They play at a slow pace, preferring to take their chances in a halfcourt, one-on-one contest between one of their several star-level players versus yours. They don't score on the break at all. They're decent in the paint thanks to Lopez posting, the penetrating power of Williams, and a ton of offensive rebounds. Their jump shooting ranges from good to gruesome depending on the night. They are decent beyond the arc, though, and they attempt a ton of those. Turnovers are a huge issue on offense, especially on bad nights. Playing at the second-slowest pace in the league is supposed to limit miscues but he Nets are the 4th worst team in the league in turnovers per possession. They're 6th lowest in assists per possession as well. The shadow side of fielding a bunch of stars and former-stars: a ton of dribbling into a mistake or a bad shot.
Brooklyn's defense allows too many easy points for comfort. Those star guards don't always get back to defend the break and those turnovers don't help. None of their big men are premier defenders. Their rotations are slow. Blue-collar rebounders they've got. Blue-collar defenders, not so much. The one nifty trick they manage is avoiding fouls. They're 1st in the league in opponent free throws attempted. They actually average more than 5 free throw attempts per game than opponents.
The Nets are a more talented team than the Blazers, a deeper team, have more experience, and field a couple players who could cause Portland serious harm. That looks like a tough combination to beat. But the Blazers have to remember that the Nets also have dependencies and flaws which the Blazers could exploit. Even if they score one-on-one, the Nets will suffer if the Blazers keep them off of the offensive glass. Taking away extra shots and extra paint points is going to keep them out of that red-line 110 point area unless they hit a game-long hot streak (in which case you're done anyway). If you can keep them in the low 100's or less, you can outscore them. You can't be stupid about it. Plenty of teams have ended up Wang Chung-ing against this team, peaking in the mid-80's because they tried to match walk-it-up individual offense. But if you move the ball--a Portland specialty--you will get open shots, particularly on the perimeter. The Blazers often use three-pointers to propel them to their best offensive outings. This would be a good night for it. Exploiting turnovers could provide another advantage. If the Blazers can score fluidly, perhaps even quickly, the Nets will have trouble matching pace, energy, emotion. They'll need huge nights from Williams, Lopez, Johnson to balance out the score. They'll probably get good performances from one or two of those guys. If you force them to depend on all three (or more) you've got a chance.
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