Nets look to finish 2012 on a high note

After three days off, Nets close calendar with six games in nine days
12/21/2012 9:40 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Avery Johnson and the Nets finish 2012 with six games in December's final nine days.(AP)

The Nets are in a bit of a free fall in December, with their record this month now 2-8 after Wednesday’s loss to the Knicks and their overall mark just a game over .500 at 13-12. For a team that was hyped to be an instant contender after their free agent spending spree in July, it’s not a place anyone expected -- or wants -- to be in.

Pressure is mounting, and that’s why head coach Avery Johnson hopes the team's current three-day pre-Christmas break is just the tonic his struggling squad needs.

“In some ways, the break is coming at a much needed time,” Johnson said Wednesday night, “but in other ways you wish you could get back out there. Hopefully, we’ll manage it well, and come back with a renewed sense of energy, focus, concentration, and competitive spirit.”

Johnson gave the Nets Thursday off, and the team is set to practice Friday and Saturday before hosting Philadelphia on Sunday at Barclays Center. The coach said the Nets would “get some work done and figure out what some of our issues are” in those practices, and among the myriad issues that seem to be plaguing the team, perhaps their season-long third-quarter malaise is the biggest.

Prior to Wednesday, the Nets were averaging just 21.8 points in the third frame, a number that was 29th in the league, and they were in the bottom five in both field goal percentage and rebounds as well. That struggle was only magnified against the Knicks, as Brooklyn scored just 19 in the third and New York closed the period on an 18-6 run that helped them salt away the win.

Johnson has a bit of an idea as to what may be the root, but it’s an issue that’s not necessarily easily solved.

“We have to fight fatigue a little better,” he said. “Sometimes we get in the third quarter and the games get a little helter skelter, and maybe our guys get a little fatigued. We have to fight through that, but we’re not there yet.”

As far as other rhythms go, Johnson feels that cold shooting and carelessness with the ball are the most disruptive issues on either end, and are key priorities the team needs to solidify going forward.

“I think [at times] it’s a little over-reliance on threes. It takes energy to get to the basket, and I think also we get a little discouraged when our shots don’t go in the paint, and we start to settle,” Johnson said. “But we have to take better care of the ball. When we get our defense set, and we’re not on our heels, we can be pretty good defensively. But we have too many deflections, and we have to get our team settled a little bit.”

Those issues are more readily fixable, and even though the Nets have lost eight of their last 10, the coach feels that even a few breaks either way could’ve cut that slide drastically.

“You go back and look at some of the games [we’ve lost recently] and they were very winnable games,” Johnson said. “[Wednesday’s game] got away from us at the end of the third quarter, but you look at the Utah game or Chicago game…if we don’t turn the ball over and make our open shots, we win those games.”



Either way, members of the team have expressed frustration -- with Deron Williams even making (and later recanting) a statement about his struggle to adapt to Johnson’s systems -- and the fans are frustrated as well. After the 13-12 start, a fan poll fostered by The Brooklyn Game saw 53 percent of those surveyed point to Johnson's coaching as the main issue, with another 40 percent saying he’s at least part of the problem, even if he is being scapegoated.

That’s 93 percent of the survey calling the coach out in some form for the team’s struggles -- but according to Johnson, that comes with the territory, because he knows that when you sell the sizzle, you still need to have a good steak behind it.

“The hype [this summer] was deserved, but when you get that hype, it comes with a greater level of responsibility, because you’re not coming in through the back door on anybody,” Johnson said. “With that greater level of responsibility and pressure, we have to be able to function in those situations.”

Almost a third of the way through the season, one might surmise they should have learned how to do that by now, but Johnson says the team will have to keep its head up and remain confident.

“I’m with those guys in the locker room every day, and they’re tough and they feel bad,” Johnson said. “I’m confident in the guys that we have … we’re going to keep them encouraged, get back in the lab this weekend and work on some parts of our game and hopefully get this bad taste out of our mouths.”

After this break, the Nets will close 2012 with six games in the calendar’s final nine days, a stretch that includes back-to-back home dates against Charlotte and Cleveland -- two teams that entered Friday a collective 28 games below .500.

Johnson knows that with games against two division rivals to start the stretch and a date in San Antonio to end it, now is the time to make hay, and that process starts with sticking together through adversity.

“These times are the times that dictate what type of team you’re going to be. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve got a lot of season left, and we’ll get it turned around,” Johnson said. “You have to stay optimistic, because it’s a long season. … Hopefully we’ll finish off this month better than we started it.”

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