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In this episode of “Road to Brooklyn,” Avery Johnson, the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets meets BK emcee Talib Kweli at Junior’s Restaurant to discuss basketball, the borough and how the Nets can be at home in Brooklyn.
Click here to watch past episodes of “Road to Brooklyn” on JAY Z‘s Life+Times.
When the Brooklyn Nets acquired Joe Johnson they also acquired great expectations. Joining forces with perennial point guard Deron Williams equated to an offensive juggernaut and one of the most potent backcourts in the league. But like music, basketball is a game predicated on chemistry and rhythm, intangibles that don’t arrive overnight. They take time.
“It’s been cool,” Johnson said of playing alongside Williams. “We’re still working on some things, still learning one another, still trying to become a good backcourt. We’ve still got a lot of room for improvement and as the season goes on, we’ll get better.”
It’s been mostly ups so far for the Nets, but there have been some downs and inconsistencies, as well. They started the season winning six of their first eight, but later had a five-game winning streak immediately followed by a five-game losing streak. Ups are Johnson’s recent buzzer beater; downs are the team’s late-game collapse against the Bulls the following night. “We had 18 turnovers,” head coach Avery Johnson said after the Bulls loss, “and had we done a better job of taking care of the ball down the stretch, we probably could have came out on the winning end. Those guys [Williams and Johnson] draw a lot of attention, we’ve just got to do a better job of getting them out of spots.”
“Hopefully we can just come around,” Williams said after the Bulls loss. “We had a stretch where we won those five games in a row. We were playing great defense. Our offense still wasn’t as great as we’d hoped, but we were winning games defensively. If you’re doing that you gotta be happy, but we’re not doing that right now.”
“I don’t know what the reason is,” he said. “It’s a little bit of everything. We really, as a whole unit, haven’t clicked offensively all season as far as everybody being on at the same time and our offense working for a full game. We’ve had bits and pieces. We’ve had guys be hot, guys not be hot, but we haven’t had everybody on the same page.”
Offensively, Johnson and Williams have both struggled compared to previous seasons. Williams is averaging a modest 17 points and eight assists per game, but his field goal (38%) and three-point shooting (29%) percentages are the lowest of his career. Johnson’s 16.8 points per game is his lowest since 2003-04, though he’s picked it up in recent weeks averaging 19 points on 45 percent shooting thus far in the month of December. Williams – and the Nets’ roster in general – has been banged up, but, “we’re not gonna use that as an excuse,” he said. As the team finally gets back to 100 percent with the return of Brook Lopez, the search for their rhythm will continue. Roughly only a quarter of the way through the season, there’s still time.
“We know what we can do when we have a full deck. We showed that earlier in the season, now we’re just trying to get back to that point,” said Johnson. “My main concern isn’t really about my rhythm, it’s about this cohesiveness as a team, us becoming one unit and getting back to playing how we were in the beginning of the season. I just wanna win, that’s it. It’s not about what I’m out there doing, as long as we’re winning I think that’s the main thing.”
The start of the 2012-13 NBA season has already developed a myriad of plots and sub-plots. From the inner city, interdivisional rivalry/battle between the resurging New York Knicks and the relocated Nets in Brooklyn to the departure of James Harden from Oklahoma to Houston to the surprising start of the Memphis Grizzles, no storyline has been more compelling-yet-also-perplexing than the abysmal play of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s been a circus of a season for Los Angeles. Since six-time All-Star Dwight Howard was traded to L.A. in the offseason, and the Lakers acquired former two-time MVP Steve Nash as their point guard, many thought that 34-year-old Kobe Bryant was destined to be fitted for a sixth NBA championship ring at the end of the season. But when the Lakers walked into Madison Square Garden last Thursday, they were the not-so proud owners of a 9-13 record, humbly exited the Garden with another embarrassing mark in the loss column.
Despite the big name acquisitions, many criticized that the Lakers super team, actually had gotten older in age, and it would be a miracle if Bryant and Co. could last an entire season without injuries. When the Lakers made the Andrew Bynum-for-Howard four-team trade, the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year was still reeling from offseason back surgery. Howard has often appeared sluggish this season and lacks the same explosive lift as his days in Orlando. Then, the 38-year-old Nash went down to a fractured fibula a week into the season. And once head coach Mike D’Antoni took over for the fired Mike Brown, All-Star Pau Gasol‘s minutes were reduced and he was later forced to sit out due to knee tendinitis. Although injuries have hampered the early season expectations for L.A., the Lakers’ depleted roster is partially to blame for the struggles the franchise has faced this season.
The Lakers have plenty of issues to be concerned about right now– their lack of offensive execution and their lack of transition defense foremost among them. D’Antoni has often been considered an offensive genius whose teams are poor defensively, but right now the Lakers don’t really look good on either end of the court. On Thursday, they allowed the Knicks to put up 41 points in the first quarter. Orlando dropped 40 on them in the fourth quarter, in a loss. And OKC dropped 41 on the in the second quarter, for another L. As those who are healthy continue to try to adjust to D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less system, their basic defensive fundamentals have diminished. A championship can’t be won if a team doesn’t play D, of course. A team can’t make the playoffs if they can’t defend. And that’s the major issue the Lakers find themselves in after letting their problem pile up.
But as bad as everything has gone for the 11-14 Lakers, they’re winning again and it took a return to Kobe’s hometown of Philadelphia for L.A. to being the process of righting the ship. Although, it’s just a two-game win streak –the first of D’Antoni’s tenure with the team after they beat the Wizards on Friday– it’s still a turnaround from their horrendous start. On Sunday, Bryant scored 34 points, Howard had 17 points and 11 boards, and Metta World Peace finished with 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, as ‘the Show’ won consecutive games for the first time in nearly a month with a 111-98 victory over the Sixers.
“It’s guys playing with confidence and guys trusting each other,” Bryant explained to the media post-game. “We played well, communicated well, kept attacking and good things happened. I know the questions have been coming because we hadn’t been winning, but our time will come.”
Many hope that time is sooner than later. It’s hard to bet against a five-time NBA champion, let alone the Black Mamba himself, but with D’Antoni at the helm, this aging Lakers’ roster doesn’t match the veteran coach’s seven-seconds-or-less offense.
Talent rules in this league and the Lakers, when healthy, have perhaps the most dominant-yet-versatile starting five in the NBA. Gasol is expected to return to the lineup as soon as Tuesday against Charlotte and Nash isn’t too far behind, as he could be back the following game against Golden State. Still, despite their return, there is no doubt it’s going to take more than Nash’s basketball IQ and skills to fix things in Hollywood. At 11-14, including a dismal 4-8-road record, who do you think can rewrite this script for the greater good?
So far this season, the NBA’s Battle For Los Angeles belongs to the Clippers. While, Kobe, Dwight and the drama-filled Lakers have still been the center of attention for many, the better basketball has been played by the other team in Tinsel Town. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the household names, no doubt, but a total team effort is what has the Clips looking like a legitimate contender in the Western Conference this year. Starting center span style=”color: #ffdb76;”>Deandre Jordan, and backup point guard Eric Bledsoe, are major reasons for the Clippers’ great success, as the two young guns, still yet to hit the prime of their careers, have made drastic improvements to their games.
Entering this season, Jordan had made a name for himself by dunking everything in sight. Unfortunately, dunks and horrendous free throw shooting was about all he was known for. His back-to-the-basket post game was under constant scrutiny. Since the preseason, he’s shown off a deeper repertoire of moves and improved footwork, using up-and-unders, and right and left-handed jump hooks to go along with his ridiculous patented slams.
“I’ve just been more confident,” said Jordan, now in his 5th season. “Whether it’s been offense, defense, at the free throw line, I’ve just been super-confident when I’m out there and my teammates trust me so that makes me more comfortable. I really did the same thing [as other off-seasons]. I got more reps up and my teammates saw me with the ball in the post in the summer time and they trust me with it. I really did the same thing, nothing different, but they trust me now. That’s big.”
As a result, he’s averaging just under 10 points per game, a definite step up from his 6.3 career average. His 58 percent field goal shooting is fourth best in the league, and playing with some of the best playmakers in the league – Paul, Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford and Chauncey Billups – make his job a simple one. “The only thing I really gotta do is set screens and have my hands up. That’s it. And get ready for a pass that’s gonna be up where the rim is. They make it easy for me.”
Paul, Crawford and Billups have helped simplify the game for Bledsoe, too, who’s taken full advantage of the opportunity to learn from his elders in his third season. “My biggest improvements came when I was hurt, being able to learn so much from Chris and Chauncey,” said Bledsoe, one of the biggest surprises and most exciting players in the league this season. “The game is being slowed down to me now, as far as when to change speeds, when to give [guys] the ball.”
“He’s made a lot of progress,” Billups said of his pupil Bledsoe. “I’m so proud of Bled. What he does more than anything, is he’s studying the game more now. We watch films together, talk about little things he can do to effect the game with his minutes. Athletically, he’s a freak. He’s been blessed with a gift athletically, but the thing he’s stepping up is his mental approach to the game. You can just see it, the way he reads pick and rolls, game situations, managing the game when he’s out there.”
After getting out to a slow start last year because of an injury, he’s averaging career-best numbers across the board and affecting the game in every aspect this season. The efficiency has been fantastic: 10 points, three assists, three rebounds, 1.5 steals and almost one block per game on 50 percent shooting in 18 minutes. “The role of the bench in general is to come in and change the pace, just like any other bench, but I think we’ve got a lot more firepower than most benches,” said Bledsoe. Bledsoe’s blazing speed is a great contrast to the always under control Paul, as he serves as the key catalyst for the Clippers’ bench, which has arguably been the best in the league.