NEWARK, NJ -- Avery Johnson likes to challenge his players, and they seem to respond to him. They know what happens if they don’t.
The Nets took Johnson’s challenge Sunday night and answered it the best way they could have. They played hard from start to finish, didn’t get down despite going down by 12 points in the third quarter and thrived during the weakest point of the game: crunch time.
All of that led to a 98-96 victory over the Blazers at the Prudential Center that made Johnson praise his guys for the way they played.
“Big character win,” was how Johnson put it.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Johnson was “very disappointed” with his players' performance in Philadelphia. He had every reason to be. It was easily their worst effort of the season all the way around.
The damning numbers from that game were 36 fourth-quarter points allowed to the Sixers on 15-of-19 shooting. Twenty-fours hours later -– and after a message-sending morning shootaround by Johnson –- the Nets gave up 36 points in the final 20:55 on 11-of-32 shooting.
Suffice it to say, the Nets got Johnson’s message.
“It’s not a matter of necessity,” Devin Harris said after being asked if the Nets needed a shootaround. “It was him sending a message. That’s what it is.”
“Don’t make too much of it,” Johnson said. “We’re a young team. We should be able to shoot on back-to-backs if we need to, but I think in the manner of how I called it, they knew I was really disappointed.”
Last week, Johnson said the Nets lacked “leadership from within.” That was pointed at Harris and Brook Lopez. The two captains responded in Tuesday’s win over the Hawks. Everyone responded last night.
What Johnson did in making the players get out of bed and watch film early was a big deal. Teams rarely shoot around or work out the morning after a night game. But Johnson is doing things his way, and he felt the Nets needed to see film of what they did wrong against Philadelphia and right it against the Blazers.
It worked because everyone was inspired. Harris had one of his best games of the season with 25 points and eight assists. He was responsible for 12 of the Nets’ 25 fourth-quarter points.
It also was Harris’ timeliness. After the Nets fell behind by 12 in the third, Harris led a 14-2 run with nine points. Then in the fourth, Harris accounted for seven of the Nets’ last 11 points.
But other Nets were big, too. Kris Humphries had three blocks – two of which Harris described as “monstrous” –- in the second half. He also made a layup, on a Harris feed, that untied the game with 1:43 left. Anthony Morrow scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half, including a huge 3-pointer to tie the game with 4:24 left and two foul shots with 6.9 seconds remaining to put the game away. Even Travis Outlaw, who had a quiet seven points, caused a big turnover on Brandon Roy down the stretch and sank two free throws with 20 seconds left to put the Nets up four.
“I think it shows growth,” Humphries said. “We had some tough losses that really hurt us. That game in Philly was one of those games where you’re going to look back, when you’re trying to fight for position -– if we get to that point, and hopefully we do -– we’re going to be like, ‘Man, we needed that game.’
“I think from this point out, we’ve got to approach all our games [like this], get our record right and turn this thing around.”
One thing the Nets can be certain of, though, is Johnson will find another way to challenge them.
“Man, they responded. Big character win for us tonight. They were highly motivated, energized and focused. It was that way throughout the game. Portland was up 12 at one point. But no one really dropped their heads. We communicated well in the timeouts. They tried to zone us a little bit and we thought we did a really good job of attacking their zone. We thought out our zone was pretty effective.”
- Johnson after his team bounced back.
Follow me on Twitter: @Al_Iannazzone
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)