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Monday, May 15, 2006

Nets Going Down in Flames Versus the Heat

The Miami Heat defeated the New Jersey Nets 102-92 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their second round series. Yes, the Suns came back from 3-1 down to oust the Lakers but the Suns played two of the last three games at home and were facing a young, seventh seeded team; the Nets must now win two games on the road against a higher seeded team that is loaded with playoff veterans. I picked the Nets to win this series, so I have some 'splaining to do, as the saying goes (if the Nets win three straight, just disregard this post...).

I thought that the Nets could attack Miami in the paint with dribble penetration by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, creating easy scoring opportunities and getting Shaquille O'Neal in foul trouble. That is a pretty good description of how New Jersey built a huge lead against Miami early in game one. I think that the series changed when Richard Jefferson sprained his ankle very early in the third quarter of that game. At that time, New Jersey led 67-50 and Jefferson already had 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting and 4-5 free throw shooting. He also had four rebounds and five assists. He accomplished this in 22:50 of court time--less than a half. So he was potentially on his way to a 40 point game and a triple double--he might not have gotten it if New Jersey continued to blow out Miami and he sat out the fourth quarter or if Miami changed its defense to focus on him, but he was having a marvelous game. Jefferson has played in each of the games since then, but a cursory look at his statistics shows that he is a different player than he was in that game, the first round or the regular season. He has only attempted five free throws in the last three games; Jefferson averaged 8 free throw attempts a game in the first round versus Indiana and 7.4 FTA/g in the regular season. Jefferson has only 10 rebounds in games two through four--again, he had four in basically one half of game one. He has only ten assists in the last three games. Jefferson is still shooting a good percentage from the field--better than 50% in each game--and has scored 16, 17 and 17 points in the last three games, but all of the numbers point to a simple fact--he has not been as aggressive attacking the basket since the injury. The Nets led by 17 when he got hurt, briefly pushed the lead up when he left the game, and then held off a furious Miami rally to win game one 100-88. Since that time the Nets have been playing most of the series from behind. Cliff Robinson's suspension for violating the NBA's substance abuse policy depleted an already thin Nets bench and could hardly have helped the morale of the team.

I don't want to sound like I am making excuses for the Nets or for my prediction. Point blank, the Heat are playing harder and smarter than the Nets and my prediction seems likely to be proven wrong. The Nets still do have Jefferson's services even if he is somewhat limited and they could surmount his condition and the absence of Robinson by playing more intelligently--namely, cut down on the unforced turnovers, stop shooting so many threes and drive to the basket. This would create higher percentage shots for the Nets and foul trouble for the Heat. When Vince Carter drives he can get right to the front of the rim; he needs to eschew all but the most open three point shots, put his head down and drive to the hoop. He must accept the body contact and make the free throws. If he does this, Jason Kidd continues to play well and Nenad Krstic shoots like he did in game four, the Nets could still salvage this series. New Jersey has sufficient talent to come back and win this series but after watching the last three games I wonder if the Nets have the proper mindset and enough healthy bodies. The Nets literally threw game three away with their sloppy ball handling and they had numerous opportunities to win game four but seemed to trip over themselves at every key moment. Now they have no margin of error. The first five minutes of game five will be interesting--are the Nets mentally prepared to play three grueling battles to win this series or will they take the easy way out and submit to the Heat's will in Miami?

posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM

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