Three-Pointers: Johnson carries Nets down the stretch as they eke past C’s
By Ben Eagle
On a night when their crosstown rivals stole headlines, the Nets made some news of their own, defeating the Celtics 102-97 to move to 5-2. Brook Lopez and Deron Williams led all scorers with 24 points, and Paul Pierce had 22 for the Celtics, who fell to 5-4.
• Lopez and Williams filled up the box score, but it was Joe Johnson who was crucial for the Nets down the stretch. Johnson, in his first year with the team, started slowly, shooting only 23 percent from the floor through three quarters. But the Nets never lost faith in No. 7, calling play after play for Johnson as the minutes dwindled in the fourth quarter. That faith paid off. Johnson shot 3-of-6 from the floor in the fourth, shaking off his early-game struggles. He finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and one turnover.
This marks the second straight strong performance for Johnson, who broke out of an early-season slump with 25 points, six assists and five rebounds against the Cavaliers on Tuesday. This is surely what the Nets envisioned when they traded for Johnson, a third scoring presence who could complement Lopez and ease the burden on Williams. The Nets’ Big Three may not measure up to that of the Heat on paper, but it’s brutally effective in its own right. Williams finished with 24 points and eight assists, controlling and steadying the offense while Johnson was struggling, and Lopez camped out around the basket, tallying his 24 points on a tidy 11-of-14 shooting.
• Defense is still a concern for the Nets. Despite their obliteration of the Celtics on the boards in the first half (the Nets finished the first half with 19 second-chance points, Boston just six), the Nets looked soft inside most of the game, allowing the Celtics to get whatever they wanted. The C’s would finish with 46 points in the paint.
The problem starts on the perimeter for Brooklyn. Facing a Celtics team without Rajon Rondo, the Nets couldn’t contain anyone, allowing Celtic after Celtic to penetrate and get to the rim. Everyone knew the Nets could score, but the big question was whether they would be able to stop teams night in and night out. Thursday’s game did nothing to put those fears to rest.
Much has been made of Lopez’s defensive inefficiencies, but he was the least of the Nets’ problems. The 7-footer blocked four shots and was active on the boards, including a crucial put-back with 1:45 remaining that put the Nets up 93-87.
• The Truth is still the Truth, except when he isn’t. In the third quarter, Pierce turned back the clock, scoring 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting and bringing the Celtics back into the game. At 35, he’s certainly lost a step, but he hasn’t lost his uncanny sense of spacing or his killer step-back jumper. But with 43 seconds remaining, Pierce went to the line with the opportunity to bring the Celtics within one. He missed both free throws, putting the Nets firmly in control.
The larger concern isn’t Rondo’s health or Pierce — it’s rebounding. The Celtics are last in the league in rebounds per game, and got beat up on the boards all game. Courtney Lee, a 6-foot-5 guard, led the team in rebounding with nine. The C’s won’t face a front line like the Nets’ every night, but if they don’t start getting more production from Brandon Bass, who was a minus-23, they’ll have to lean on rookies Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger earlier than expected.