Moke Hamilton, SNYNets.com
NEW YORK — On Tuesday night, the Brooklyn Nets played host to the NBA’s reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder came into Barclays Center as the NBA’s second best road team, going 5-2 through its first seven games away from Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Nets fell behind by as many as 16 points in the first half, but woke up in the third quarter. Before Barclays Center knew it, propelled by a barrage of three-pointers from Gerald Wallace (4) and Jerry Stackhouse (2), the game turned.
Playing without one starter in Brook Lopez and a key reserve in Reggie Evans, the Nets had reason to feel discouraged, and trailing 61-48 at the half, could have turned it in.
Instead, they came out, fought hard and made an exciting game out of one that had the potential to be over after 36 minutes.
“I challenged them a little bit at halftime,” Avery Johnson said after the game. “I was disappointed with our effort in the first half. We were playing like we were giving [the Thunder] too much respect… We weren’t playing like the Brooklyn Nets.”
After that, the Nets scored 38 points in the pivotal third quarter, led by Williams (13) and Wallace (12). Wallace was 4-for-4 from behind the arc in the quarter and combined, he and Williams converted on eight of their 10 total field goal attempts.
Heading into the fourth, the Nets trailed 90-86 and would twice cut the Thunder lead to two points, the final time being with 2:14 remaining after Joe Johnson (4-for-14, nine points) scored on an eight foot jumpshot.
On the ensuing play, Kris Humphries was whistled for goaltending a Durant layup, and with 1:52 remaining, the Thunder lead was four, 110-106.
Had it not been for that critical call, the Nets may have had an opportunity to tie the score or, with a three-pointer, take the lead in a game in which they initially seemed to have no business competing.
“I thought Humphries did a great job of coming over and getting that [block],” Avery Johnson said. “I’ll have to look at it again… But boy, that was a big [call].”
Though the Nets eventually fell to Durant and co., the team showed remarkable fight with its spirited second half comeback. The Nets have now lost consecutive games for the third time this season and are 11-6.
Afterward, everyone seemed to have the right perspective.
“We just have to play at a consistent level,” Gerald Wallace said. ”I feel pretty good about this team… You can take some positives [from the loss] if you’d like, we had a chance to win without two of our key guys and a bad start in the first half.”
Deron Williams felt the same, but echoed his coach’s sentiments, believing that the Nets won’t win many games in which they allow opponents to shoot over 60 percent from the field.
“I don’t think we can let a team like shoot 60 percent in our building and have a chance, even though we did have a chance.” Williams said. “We were pretty much playing uphill, we were able to catch up, but just couldn’t really get over that hump.”
“I think it’ll come together… The last two games were against the two teams in the Finals… These are two teams that have been together for a couple of years, they’ve won at the highest level and they know how to play together.”
Williams added, “We’ve had some good wins, but these last two kinda humble you. It shows us that we still have a ways to go.”
Before Tuesday night, the last time out, Avery Johnson’s club fell to the Miami Heat at Miami’s American Airlines Arena, 102-89.
And now, after seeing Durant and Russell Westbrook combine for 57 points and more impressively, 15 assists, the Nets six game home winning streak has been snapped.
But as the Nets continue the trod toward the three-quarters pole of this NBA season, it showed something very important:
This team can compete with even the highest level of competition across the league.
Afterward, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook gave praise to his opponents. “[The Nets] are a good team, especially at home,” he said. “This was a good test for us. We should have done a better job protecting the lead, but they’re a good team.”
Durant, on the other hand, was aggressive on the offensive end, mainly because he knew that even without Lopez and Evans, the Nets are a formidable team.
“They still had three All-Stars out there,” Durant said in reference to Williams, Wallace, and Joe Johnson. ”I’m not gonna feel sorry for them… In this league, if you have players out, people step up. Andray Blatche is a pretty good player. It’s not like he’s a guy that’s strictly a role player.”
Just a few short weeks ago, Brook Lopez was raising eyebrows across the NBA with his rejuvenated play and even without him, the Nets were merely a few Joe Johnson baskets, a few Kevin Durant misses, and one critical goaltending call away from what could have been a huge victory.
Despite being without their top post option, top rebounder, and two best paint protectors, the Nets managed to hang tough with the Western Conference champion for about 46 minutes.
Moral victories are a thing that professional athletes don’t celebrate, and rightfully so. And yes, losses to the defending Eastern and Western Conference champions aren’t anything to celebrate.
Yet, at the same time, the losses aren’t really anything that should evoke any sort of surprised reaction.
The Nets are not yet a championship caliber team. They’re trying to get there. What’s most important, is that everyone understands that, buys into it, and works toward it.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and though it seems like these Nets were, there’s still a long way to go for this club.
Joe Johnson’s struggles continue, Jerry Stackhouse played 30 minutes and became human again and C.J. Watson had an utterly forgettable performance, playing just seven minutes and failing to score.
Even still, despite it all, the Brooklyn Nets were right there.
It doesn’t count for a victory, but it does count for something.