EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Nets’ recent schedule only helped their attendance figures and made some of the financial losses look better. To some, that’s probably more important than the losses that really matter – in the standings.
Tomorrow night should be another boost in the gate, but could be another ‘L’ where it counts when the Nets face Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
This ends an amazing week of games that featured three MVP candidates and probably the three best players in the league this season. First it was Dwyane Wade, then LeBron James – the clear-cut winner of the award this season – and now the reigning MVP.
“Is it amazing,” Nets guard Keyon Dooling said, “or is it a sabotage job by the schedulers?”
Dooling was smiling as he said it, but the point is well taken. The Nets were going to have to play these teams anyway, but the timing wasn’t great to put them back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Remember, last night’s loss at Cleveland ended a home-and-home with James’ gang.
This certainly was part of the schedule that stood out from the moment it came out and then even more after seeing how each of the superstars were playing and how they were leading their teams.
In the heart of a playoff race, when you’re fighting for your playoff existence, going west for four games, returning to play the Knicks at New York, and then having the next four against Wade, James, James, and Bryant – that’s a tough stretch to say the least. It’s even tougher because of all the losses the Nets have suffered that they probably shouldn’t have, all the close defeats that they wish they had back. The Nets are hanging on by a thread after their sixth loss in eight games last night in Cleveland.
They’re in 11th place, 3 ½ out, with 11 to play, including the Lakers’ game and one each against the Celtics and Magic. The Nets need help. They need to win games, but they need help because they have to jump three teams right now.
The Pistons, the No. 7 team, are fading and play the Lakers tonight. But Detroit currently has a 4 ½-game lead on the Nets. They still have two games against each other, so you never know. But things don’t look good and even the most optimistic Nets know it.
“It’s going to be tough,” Dooling said. “We got our work cut out for us. Nevertheless we’ve got to play.
“How many times have you seen it come down to the last game, maybe go to a tiebreaker? We’ve been playing good ball. I think the schedule after the Lakers will get a little more favorable for us and then we’ve just got to try and make a run.”
It’s the right attitude to have. The Nets are fighting to stay in it, which is a credit to veterans Vince Carter, Dooling, Jarvis Hayes and Bobby Simmons. They’re being good role models and examples for the young guys.
The Nets could have a run in them as their schedule lightens up and they’re expected to get Devin Harris back probably tomorrow, if not Sunday in Minnesota. But there has to be an even greater sense of urgency and much improvement in the Nets’ execution. As of now, other than the T-Wolves, every team the Nets play are playing for something, whether it be playoff position, homecourt, or just to get in the postseason.
“We have to win as many games as possible,” Carter said. “Watching the standings means nothing if we don’t win. If we’re winning as many games as possible we’re going to beat those teams we have to beat.”
The Nets need to be some good teams, or at least teams better than them. Only two of the 11 are behind them at this point and one is the Knicks on the last day of the season. One, if not both teams, will be out by then.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).
CLEVELAND — The Nets had their chances to beat the Cavaliers, which is amazing in itself.
Without Devin Harris and with the Cavaliers playing for a chance to set a franchise mark for wins and continuing their march for an NBA-tying record for victories at home, the Nets had Cleveland on the ropes.
The fans were a little quiet, seemingly shocked by what they were watching, but they were ready to make noise. Deep inside they figured LeBron James would not let them lose and that’s what we were all witnesses to in the Cavaliers’ 98-87 victory Friday night.
James didn’t have a big scoring night, finishing with 22 points, but he was uber-effective and made every single play down the stretch.
You have to credit his teammates too for making the shots, but that’s what playing with someone likes James does. It gives everyone open shots. It makes everyone better.
It all happened after the Nets erased a 13-point deficit and tied the game, 72-72. From there, James scored or assisted on 19 of the Cavaliers’ next 21 points, including 12 straight after the Nets took an 82-81 lead with 3:53 left.
That’s what great players do. They read the defense and they make plays for themselves or their teammates. When James doubled, he kicked. When he had an opening, he took it. He had two field goals, four free throws and four assists in the fourth period — three of them on threes.
This is why James is going to win the MVP award and the Cavaliers are expected to play into June. They seem to be a team of destiny this season, with 58 wins, a 33-1 mark at home and the ability to play through injuries to key players.
The Nets, on the other hand, seem destined for the Lottery, despite all of their effort. They played well, played hard, fought against the NBA’s best team for the second time in four nights. But, in the end, they didn’t make plays down the stretch.
They let the Cavaliers score on their last 10 possessions. The Nets shot 2-for-11 after they took their only lead since 5-4. It’s nothing new. Late-game execution has cost the Nets so much this season, and especially this month.
All that remains is 11 games and a glimmer of hope — a glimmer at most.
They’re not done, but they’re close. They sit in 11th place, 3½ behind Chicago, and their next game is against the Lakers. If trends continue the Nets will play them close and then lose the game late. That’s what they did in their last four games against division leaders: Boston, Orlando and Cleveland twice.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, so every game is so important,” coach Lawrence Frank said. “When you’re this deep into the season and you’re desperate to make the playoffs, we’re going to have to find a way to win some games that we’re ‘not supposed to win.’
No one’s going to make it easy because everyone’s playing for something. Cleveland and the Lakers are battling for the best record, for home-court advantage in the Finals. We just have to find a way to win some of these games.”
After the Lakers’ game, things lighten up a little with the T-Wolves and Bucks in a back-to-back. Then the Nets play the Pistons, are at Chicago, home for the Sixers, at Boston and Detroit and home for Orlando. There are several games in there that the Nets are not supposed to win, never mind the quote-unquote.
Maybe the Nets will be boosted by the return of Harris, which could happen Friday. But time is running out. All these close games show the Nets are fighting and staying competitive, which is good, but they’re losing and each defeat moves them one step closer to next season.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).
The best thing you can say about the Nets’ trip is that it’s over. At least the West Coast portion of it is. They still have a quasi-road game tomorrow at the Knicks and then the schedule really gets tough.
Yes, tougher than going West.
Now we will really find out about the Nets’ mettle — whether Vince Carter can rally them, whether Brook Lopez can go back to being a double-double guy every night and whether Keyon Dooling can inspire them in place of Devin Harris, who is out indefinitely with a sprained left shoulder and strained left deltoid.
We also will learn whether Lawrence Frank will have an even shorter leash on Yi Jianlian, which the coach probably should at this point.
Collectively, the Nets had too many bad moments, too many breakdowns, did too many things that led to the four gut-wrenching losses on the trip that ended terribly in Denver Monday night when the Nuggets grabbed as many offensive rebounds (25) as the Nets grabbed defensive boards (25). That should never happen.
But all of that has to be behind the Nets now. They’re two games back with 15 to play. Their singular focus has to be the playoffs and not worrying about what happened over the last week or in March, which has been brutal.
It will be tough because the reporters will keep reminding them either through our questions or writing. Like now. The Nets are 2-7 and in all but one loss — in Denver — they led in the fourth period. The Nets’ first six losses were by a combined 24 points.
When it’s all said and done, these are the games everyone will point to as the reason the Nets didn’t get in the playoffs, if that in fact does happen, and it’s looking more and more likely that it will.
But the Nets have to put it behind them and concentrate on the Knicks without Harris because after that they have four games against the NBA’s three best players and three MVP candidates.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Nets president Rod Thorn said.
Dwyane Wade is at the Meadowlands on Friday. All the NBA’s scoring leader has done to the Nets this season is average 35 points, 5.3 assists, three steals and 2.3 blocks in three wins. Lopez remembers what he did to him, swatting him a couple of times late in their last meeting.
Then it’s a home-and-home with MVP frontrunner LeBron James. The Cavs are a game ahead of the Lakers for the NBA’s best record and have lost just once at home. Enough said.
Then it’s Kobe Bryant’s turn when the reigning MVP leads the defending West-champion Lakers into New Jersey Friday for their only visit this season.
Those are four difficult games, much more difficult than at the Warriors, Blazers, Clippers and Nuggets.
That was a winnable trip, and it wound up being winless. Many people probably are predicting winless for these four, especially with Harris’ return date uncertain.
This is where we’ll find what the Nets are made of and whether they learned anything or are more hungry because of what happened on the trip. Their season is not over unless they’re already defeated mentally. Then they really have no shot against Wade, LeBron and Kobe.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)