This was a hotly anticipated game by Nets fans after the surprising rabbit-out-of-the-hat last minute trade for Deron Williams. Everybody has heard about the Nets losing out on Melo then getting shut down as they desperately tried to move Devin Harris before the trade deadline. As midnight approached (or 3pm on Thursday afternoon which serves as midnight for The Association) Billy King struck gold and managed to negotiate a deal for Deron Williams; maybe lacking the sizzle of the Anthony trade but a much better move. Unfortunately for New Jersey, the first game for the new look Nets was against the league best San Antonio Spurs, resulting in a game that was rarely, if ever, seriously in doubt.
The Spurs started the game playing excellent team offense, passing the ball well and waiting for great opportunities instead of taking contested shots. They drove aggressively to the basket and almost all the first quarter points were scored in the paint. The best team in the league at shooting the three ball did not even attempt a three pointer until two minutes remaining in the first quarter. I love this approach. Much like the run opens up the pass in football, penetration into the paint opens up the outside later in the game as defenses start collapsing. Just as importantly, crisp passing leading to higher percentage inside shots gives the entire team some momentum that can translate into confidence and better shooting all around.
The disciplined but aggressive team effort allowed the Spurs to jump out to a 18-9 run and it looked like the game was going to be over before halftime. But then a few things happened. The Spurs got a little bit less disciplined including some defensive lapses, they missed some shots, and reserve guard Anthony Morrow caught fire, scoring 11 points in the last six minutes of the quarter. All this allowed the nets to close the gap a bit and the first quarter ended respectable 29-24.
The second quarter was even worse. Spurs did not really play that badly, but they didn't play well either, then both teams got sloppy near the end of the half. This Spurs team at their best are absolutely terrifying to play. They are able to pass the ball around and maintain discipline and wait the perfect opportunity to get a completely boring wide open shot. However, they chose not to display that particular style of play this quarter, instead often opting to rely on individual skill to take contested shots. Although most of our players are in fact better than their counterparts, this was not the most effective style to play, especially near the end of the half where we missed several shots in a row allowing New Jersey to take a 54-53 lead at halftime despite some sloppiness from the Nets as well.
The third quarter saw the Spurs go back to their system a little more: penetration into the paint then a pass to a big guy in the paint or a kick out for an open three pointer. Tony was especially on fire with his speedy penetration forcing the nets players to collapse into the paint. Spurs outscored the Nets 35-18 in the third quarter, not quite putting the game away but pretty close.
The fourth quarter was almost meaningless. Although the game was pretty much decided the Spurs did not build up enough of a lead to bring in the end of the bench until almost the end of the game. Some nice plays by players on both sides, but otherwise a pretty forgettable fourth quarter.
Timmy: The RRT has finally passed by and the sleeping giant is waking up. He made his one play where he tried to be a guard and drive into the paint (unsuccessfully), but was otherwise his awesome self. Nice passing as always. Strong defensive presence in the paint that forced the NJ bigs to take jumpers instead of posting up, not that they needed much incentive, but still. On offense Timmy had his classic common sense and timing, trailing our players and cleaning up missed shots. He even got some dunks in.
Tony: Frenchie was phenomenal. Tony has been playing great all season long but for some reason never gets the love that other players do. He has really been making an effort to improve his passing and had some sweet dimes this game including a beauty to Blair for the dunk. It is especially nice that he is not even a footnote in all the crazy trade talk this week because he made a commitment to the Spurs early in the season. Can you imagine the tabloids if he did not have an extension yet? All the talk would be about Tony, Carmelo and Amare in NY, where the endorsement money alone would have probably doubled his earnings. Luckily he is still a Spur. An underappreciated, unloved, often maligned Spur, but still a Spur. Yes, he had several plays where he drove it in and took (and often made) tough shots instead of passing it out, but those plays are what forced the defenders to all collapse into the paint the other times he passed out to the open guy.
via CD (thanks Josh)
Manu: Hopefully The Sickness is back. He made some sweet shots and some sweet passes, leading all scorers with 26 points.
BLAAAAIIIIRRRR!: Only six rebounds. What a loser :-). Blair continues his strong sophomore year with 17 points and energizing play and wistful regrets from every other front office in the league.
George Hill: Had some early lapses in defense, but otherwise another outstanding game. He gave us much needed offense at key moments along with heady all round play. I also liked that moment in the fourth quarter where RJ fouled Deron Williams on a fast break and George solidly grabbed Deron to stop him from crashing down hard. Nice classy touch there Cubits.
Richard Jefferson: Sucked. 0-7, 2 points. 26 minutes. However, even when RJ struggles I fully appreciate his presence. The guy took a new contract (yes, more years, but less money than he could have made elsewhere with the original contract + extra years), and spent the summer working hard to fit into the system just to become the *fourth* scoring option at best. Lots of players would have done all that to become a star somewhere, but how many would have done so to become a fourth or fifth wheel? So thank you for being here, RJ, even on bad days like this.
Anderson: 6 points in 18 minutes. The most surprising stat to me was the 18 non-garbage minutes, but keep in mind that Gary Neal was out and RJ was struggling, so we really needed minutes from Mr. Anderson. This game also showed how important it is for Anderson to get up to speed within the system. Small forward is the one position where we do not have a backup, and though Neo is technically a guard he can become that backup.
Deron Williams: His first game on a new team after a hectic couple of days but managed a decent game with some nice passing. A great calming presence on the Nets that makes them feel more confident.
Anthony Morrow: The Spurs always pick some bench or role player to turn into a star of the game and Morrow was it tonight. However, he impressed me more than the usual one hit wonder. Not because of his very efficient 25 points, but because of his reaction to those points. No running around with arms outstretched after a made shot - just a business as usual attitude and immediate focus on the next play. I don't think he even cracked a smile after his baskets. His attitude reminds me a lot of Gary Neal and he has a strong chance of becoming a similar impact player for the Nets.
New Jersey Nets: They played much better than expected, but the bar was set pretty low to begin with. Going forward they now have something solid to build around, assuming the insane NY/NJ media market gives them the space to develop properly. I have always felt that the core pieces you really need are a good coach, point guard and a big man. They already had Lopez then lucked out and got Deron Williams. Avery has a reputation for not really connecting with his players, but is otherwise a good coach and is certainly better than the coaches most rebuilding teams are stuck with. All three of those core pieces have a few question marks so it is not a sure thing, but they also have lot of strengths along some interesting market dynamics so it will be fun to see what happens next.
San Antonio Spurs: Do not be fooled by the fact that it was not a blowout despite great play from several players. Once they jumped out to a quick start they got a little bit casual about the whole team offense thing but they are still a very capable team. Practically no random individual play, almost everything was based on chemistry and teamwork. Except for that second quarter, of course.
The Three Stars.
Honestly I hate picking these stars. I almost always feel like the three stars are Tim, Manu and Tony. Even when someone else is on fire and scores a ton of points the key to the game is usually those three and the other guy would not have gotten those points without them being around. Thus the stars tend to be awarded based on "who surprised me the most" instead of "who was essential for this win". This time the stats mostly back me up so I will give them to the big three:
I will say that both Blair and Hill played well enough to merit consideration, and an honorable mention has to go to Anthony Morrow even though he was on the other team.