Bulls 99, Nets 93: Thoughts on the end of a season
The jokes were already popping on Twitter before the final buzzer sounded, when it became clear that the Brooklyn Nets weren’t shooting their way out of the last deficit they’d need to overcome in this series. This was what you got when your arena was built on displaced households, what you got when you overpaid your way into a playoff lineup after years of mediocrity. You got to lose at home in your fancy arena, sputtering out against a team missing half its starters that just seemed to want it more, cliches be damned, because they’d been here before and knew exactly what it takes, on some metaphysical level of “effort” and “energy,” to lift yourself out of an unfavorable situation.
They were jokes, yes, but they carried an edge that wasn’t so nice. That got me wondering why, Twitter bravado aside, people seemed to take pleasure in the Nets losing in a way that evaded Houston or Milwaukee’s playoff exit. It’s easy to make fun of this team because of their fancy arena, their fashion makeover, their invoking of Jay-Z for a few years so casual fans might think this team was cool, a sentiment that’s never needed to be overtly sold in the NBA. Players and teams are cool or not and here was Brooklyn, swaggering into NYC in their black and white uniforms and trying to snatch the crown from the Knicks, who despite not accomplishing much over the last decade are still the city’s premier team. It felt a little gaudy, and thus why not snark on those jokers when they let down in the biggest game of the season?
I get it, though. Sports fans flex against anything arrogant enough to announce itself—remember the paroxysms of spite directed at the Miami Heat when they formed in the summer of 2010—and this season was one giant announcement. But after the bluster fades and Jay-Z stops attending games (he was notably absent at Game 7), the Brooklyn Nets will still be here. They won’t be the newest attraction in town or even the coolest, but they will be there—a basketball team like any other, one with a chance to entertain and infuriate every year until they win a championship, which may be a while given the NBA’s current hierarchy. That’s what this year was about: Making the Brooklyn Nets a real team, not just a spectacle, and giving local fans something to care about for years to come. A few years ago, the Nets were 12-70 and staring upward from the bottom of the barrel; now, they took a playoff series to seven games and might’ve won it, too.
Forget the injuries, because they don’t seem to matter to this Chicago team that’s better trained than any other in the league to endure the absence of any its key players. I didn’t really buy the gap in talent that much; the absence of Luol Deng was immediately filled by the ascendant Jimmy Butler, who played all 48 minutes (and did so in Game 6, too, making him the first player to play the entirety of Game 6 and 7 in a playoff series since Dave Cowens in 1973), and the replacement backcourt of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli can heat up off long twos and garbage shots in a moment. The Nets were hurt, too, though talking after the game PJ Carlesimo and Joe Johnson were quick to dismiss the relevance of any of those ailments. In a Game 7, the offense melts down to “score the damn ball” and the defense to “stop the damn ball”—there are specifics, as always, but the team that’s able to ratchet up its effort is the one that walks away. In this game it was Joakim Noah, a relentless force around the basket who picked up 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks like he wasn’t playing on one foot, explaining it after the game as nonchalantly as possible.
Brooklyn came close to taking this one, too. They got within five with 2:26 left, and might’ve narrowed it further on any number of shots. But Gerald Wallace stopped being hot from three, Joe Johnson never got hot at all, Brook Lopez passed up a few big shots and Deron Williams could only gun it wildly so many times before failing; he got one desperately heave off to make it a four-point game with half a minute left, but the Bulls didn’t cede any ground on the intentional fouling. I’ll always be taking the glass half full on losses like this, but within four was better than we might’ve hoped for at halftime, when the Nets entered down by 17 and looking completely listless. They made it a game, which was all we could hope for; to show up in this fancy arena, and not completely crap the bed in front of a turned up crowd ready and willing to give its all.
They lost, and in the wake of the losing, immediately opened up a line of thought on what it’ll take for next season to bear fatter fruit. A new coaching hire is a start. Carlesimo, for all his genial grace, never shed the interim tag this season nor gave any definitive argument for doing so; the players seem to like him, as Deron said after the game that he’d hope to see him back, but he lacked the knowhow for adjustment and schematic creativity that’s found in the league’s top coaches. Look at Tom Thibodeau, who panned gold from an infected river—what do you call a starting backcourt of Robinson and Belinelli in 2013?—by instilling a top-down defensive philosophy and hoping that the offense, lacking any primary threat, would sort itself out. The next Nets coach will have to galvanize this collection of wantonly matched personalities from the start, rather than having to carry the hangover of the previous tenure—something that PJ, installed a month into the season, never got to do. Who might it be? One of the Van Gundys, Brian Shaw, some unheralded assistant in the mode of Thibodeau? We’ll find out soon, but I’m betting it’ll be an attractive job with this city, capable roster, and owner that’s willing to pay.
The players are a little harder to figure out. There’s a lot of money locked into next year, as they’re actually slated to pay more even with the contracts of Jerry Stackhouse, Keith Bogans and Andray Blatche set to expire. Don’t necessarily expect to see those players come back, and you should expect Billy King to be aggressive in shopping the expiring deals of Kris Humphries and the smaller deals of players like MarShon Brooks and Mirza Teletovic to properly build around the more important money. Brook Lopez needs a complementary big to rebound and reliably score around and away from the basket, something Reggie Evans struggled to do throughout the year; Deron Williams needs dead-eye shooters on the perimeter to keep defenses from cheating; Joe Johnson just needs his leg back. There’s primary talent on this team, and if Gerald Wallace’s mini-revival toward the end of the playoffs portends a promising return next season, the Nets could begin 2013-14 with four high-level starters—more than many teams have, and a good reason to believe they’ll come back to the playoffs a year smarter and ready to play.
Because basketball teams take time, and you can’t just march into a city expecting to have the run of things without putting up with some adversity first—a Game 7 lost at home, a stiff salary cap, a minority owner bolting and opening up an avenues for easy jokes because he’d like to make a little more money. It’ll be a little while, though we’ll get to watch a good team and not a lottery outfit treading water. That’s a start, isn’t it? As PJ said after the game, “At this point it’s really hard to step back and have perspective because it’s such a gut wrench to lose.” Failing immediate perspective, we get to wait and see what happens next.