EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Nets should have won Wednesday night against the Knicks in what almost seemed like a road game that was played at the Izod Center.
Devin Harris delivered a perfect alley-oop pass to Yi Jianlian that he threw down to cheers from the fans. Then, a little later in the game, Al Harrington dunked a lob for the Knicks and the fans inside the Nets’ home arena went wild.
As usual, there were more Knicks’ fans here than Nets’ fans. But the Nets, who have been much better on the road, couldn’t muster up the effort, couldn’t produce the timely and impressive play that they have on the road this season.
Instead, they let the real road team leave the building with a 121-109 victory, much to the delight to many in the crowd of 16,722.
Games like this hurt the Nets and their fan base. When you have the Knicks down 15 in your building and Harris playing a seemingly unstoppable game, you can’t stop defending and you definitely can’t get rattled by New York’s helter-skelter style.
But the Nets can, and they did. They got out of sync, had trouble when the Knicks threw some unconventional lineups at them, including some that featured no player under 6-foot-6.
On one trip, Harris had to guard the 6-foot-10 Tim Thomas. And after Harris’ fast start — he scored 14 of the Nets’ first 17 points — the Knicks put 6-8 Wilson Chandler on him.
Yet, there is a common theme with many of the Nets’ home losses. They struggle in the third, get down and can’t get back up. That’s what happened last night.
“Third quarter we kind of came out a little bit sluggish, but they shot the ball extremely well,” Harris said. “They got everything they wanted out there. We out-shot them, but we’re giving up straight-lines and open threes. It plays right into their game plan. It’s hard to stop them.”
The Nets didn’t stop them. They gave up 64 points in the second half, 41 of them to Harrington and Thomas. The two Jersey boys’ total was five fewer than the Nets in the second half.
Games like this make you forget what the Nets did in Philadelphia or here to Minnesota last week. That was a rare night when the Nets jumped on a team and never let up.
You have to applaud the Knicks for how they play and for never wearing down. It’s amazing. They go seven deep and never stop playing with energy, even after playing a down-to-the-wire game the night before in Chicago.
Harrington logged 42 minutes Tuesday and came back played 46 last night. Tired? The guy put up 39 points, took 16 foul shots, and grabbed 12 rebounds. The 16 foul shots were one fewer than the Nets, which was a big point of contention.
Inside the Nets’ locker room the only thing on the dry-erase board was the free throw differential. The Knicks took 35 and the Nets 17.
“This is a game where you throw the stat sheet out because we shot better from three and better from two, but the one stat I showed them was 35-17 free throw attempts in terms of their aggressiveness,” coach Lawrence Frank said. “There are three areas [that hurt us]: talking in transition, middle penetration and high pick-and-roll defense and then Harrington being the dominant player in the game and not having any answers.”
Here’s the simple answer: defend.
You shoot 53.7 percent from the field to 50.6 for the Knicks and are 11-of-27 on threes compared to 9-for-26 by New York. You hold rebounding machine David Lee to one board. You win on points in the paint and fastbreak points. You have to win the game, especially at home.
But the Nets haven’t figured out how to do that or defend well enough consistently. They would seem to go hand in hand.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)