NEWARK -- The Nets showed up Sunday afternoon, which was an accomplishment in itself. But they didn’t have enough to outlast Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Afternoon games have been terrible for the Nets. Last week, you could have come to the game and left at halftime certain of who would win and gotten some holiday shopping in before going home. But the Nets kept everyone on the edge of their seats during this game and kept Bryant and his teammates focused and engaged in the fourth quarter.
Deep down, most everyone not associated with the Nets believed that the Lakers would find a way to pull out this game, which they did, 99-92. But it was much closer than expected for much longer than expected. But Nets coach Avery Johnson was confident his team would win and he was right about one thing -– the Lakers’ point total.
“The only thing I’m disappointed about is I’m normally good on my football predictions, but my basketball predictions aren’t good,” Johnson said. “I wrote on the board Nets 107, Lakers 99. I only got half of it right.”
The Nets could have broken 100 if some of their perimeter shots had fallen. They had a whopping 58 points in the paint as Brook Lopez outplayed Pau Gasol. Lopez outscored him, 25-15, and outshot him, 9-for-21 to 6-for-19. But the Nets were 4-for-20 from 3-point range and just couldn’t knock down shots.
“When have you seen our team this year with 58 points in the paint?” Johnson said. “But we don’t make wide-open shots. Because of that, instead of scoring about 102 or 105 tonight, we get 92.”
Johnson meant to say 107, because a little later, he admitted that was his prediction. That’s showing faith in his team, one that has scored more than 106 points just three times in the prior 23 games this season and broke the century mark five times in the past 21.
But Johnson must have seen something during the routine-breaking early-morning walkthrough he called for before this 1 p.m. game. Normally, he would have the players come to the arena around 11 a.m., but they had been blasted in prior 1 p.m. starts, so Johnson shook things up, hoping for and believing he would see a different result.
The one thing he saw that he didn’t in the previous two matinee games was effort.
“We’ve had a stretch of games where maybe I didn’t recognize our team,” Johnson said. “But give some of the credit to the Bostons of the world and some of the teams we played against.
“I asked these guys to get up at 8:45 this morning and drive to the practice facility because I didn’t really like the way we played 1 o’clock games. We didn’t win the game but they did respond with their energy. At the end of the day, it was just Kobe Bryant. It was too much Kobe Bryant.”
That was the predictable part. Even yours truly tweeted at the start of the fourth quarter with the Nets only down two: Fourth-quarter execution usually isn't good plus the Lakers have ultimate closer in Kobe. We'll see what happens.
That’s exactly what happened. Bryant had 14 of his 32 points in the fourth period and two of the biggest assists of the game during the 47th minute.
The Nets scored 25 points in the fourth –- which is good for them -- but missed 20 shots in the quarter. During one brutal stretch, the Nets misfired on 11-of-12 shots after Lopez tied it 85-85 with just under five minutes left. You can’t do that against many teams and expect to win. You certainly can’t do it against the two-time defending champs who have the best player and closer in the league.
Bryant did to the Nets what he does to most teams. He waited for the right time and then took over. There was no way he was going to let the Lakers lose to the Nets.
Just about everyone knew it, except for Johnson.
Rookie small forward Damion James broke his right foot and will have surgery Monday.
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Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)