With three games in the books, here's my prediction for the Nets this season: they'll win 39% of their games and finish with a 32-50 record. The Nets will definitely be able to beat at least a 1/3 of the teams simply because they have one of the league's best point guard-center duos in Devin Harris and Brook Lopez and they have a nice punch off the bench, led by the athletic trio of Terrence Williams, Jordan Farmar and Derrick Favors. Not to mention, double-double man Troy Murphy will be returning soon. But, as evidenced in yesterday's 23-point loss to the Heat, they'll have a tougher time against well-oiled, experienced teams that have players who are adapt at running, attacking and passing (like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James) and getting physical (like Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem). Here are five things the Nets have to do in order to compete better against the league's best:
Attack, attack, attack. The Heat did this masterfully yesterday. Not only did they look to push the ball right away off defensive rebounds, in halfcourt sets James, Wade and the team's other guards were constantly attacking open lanes and off the pick-and-roll. What especially helped them stay ahead of the Nets' defense and break it down was their quick passing off dribble penetration. Many times the Nets' guards and forwards do too much dancing on the perimeter and stall the offense, hence one of the reasons why they prefer to dump the ball into Lopez frequently. Even Lopez himself dribbles too much and sometimes gets the team in trouble because he allows the defense to collapse much faster and clog the middle. Yesterday, the Heat made it very difficult for the Nets to score inside.
Shoot better. What made matters worse for the Nets yesterday is that not only did they have trouble scoring inside, they couldn't buy a bucket from outside. The Nets have to get shots to fall. Overall, shooting may be the second biggest weakness on the team, after inexperience. While the Nets do have two guys in the starting five who exhibit downtown range, Harris and Anthony Morrow, their only long-distance marksman off the bench is Farmar. His second unit backcourt sidekick Williams has only attempted two threes all season and he missed both.
Favors has to expand his game. First, the positives. He's averaging a double-double (10.3 ppg and 10 rpg) and he had 10 offensive rebounds yesterday against a very talented Heat team with three established veterans down low: Bosh, Haslem and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In one sequence during the game, Favors caught the ball about 15 feet away from the basket on the baseline, he faced up his defender and then knocked down the shot. That's what the Nets need more out of Favors -- for him to stretch the defense out of the middle, like Bosh does with the Heat, which will enable the team's best penetrators, Harris and Williams, to get into the lane easier and create more scoring opportunities for Morrow and Travis Outlaw on the wing.
Speaking of Outlaw, he has to be consistent. Against the Kings, he had 18 points. And yesterday? Zero. In the first game I alluded to, it was the first time all season, including preseason, that Outlaw showed his worth as a $35 million free-agent signing. He took his man off the dribble, he got to the line and he even knocked down two threes. The man they called Mr. Fourth Quarter in Portland has to deliver night in and night out for the Nets to have a better shot at keeping up with the most potent scoring teams.
Get back on defense. I saved the most important note for last. Obviously the Nets won't face another team like the Heat off the break, when you consider Wade and James fill the lanes. Yesterday, the Heat were like a Scud missile off defensive rebounds and they completely burned the Nets down the court, sometimes in consecutive plays when James got the ball. But the Nets nearly lost the game to the Kings the other night because they were slow getting back on defense. So my point is this: the Nets have to work on their transitional D. By the way, Damion James is a surprising bright spot with his on-the-ball skills. The rookie, playing in only his third pro game, was assigned to LeBron James and showed solid footwork staying in front of him and making him take contested jumpshots.
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