Print and Go Back ESPN.com: New Jersey Nets [Print without images]

Monday, March 21, 2011
All it took was key miss for reality to set in

By Mike Mazzeo

NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Nets had run the play to perfection in London.

But they couldn’t execute it again on Monday night (see 0:26) against the Indiana Pacers.

Trailing 98-95 with 13.5 seconds left, the Nets had the ball out-of-bounds. Sasha Vujacic and Anthony Morrow -- New Jersey’s sharpshooting duo -- were stationed together at the top of the right wing alongside Brook Lopez. Morrow curled off to the left wing, then Lopez set a perfect screen for Vujacic, who came off of it, curled like Morrow, and headed to the left wing to catch an inbounds pass from Sundiata Gaines.

Vujacic had nailed that same 3-pointer to send that March 5 game against the Toronto Raptors to double-overtime. The Nets eventually won that one, 137-136, in triple-overtime.

But Darren Collison, who was guarding the inbounds pass, came over and contested the shot a bit, forcing Vujacic to lean into it. His 3-pointer caromed off the left side of the backboard and out of bounds, and the Nets went on to lose to the Pacers, 102-98, at the Prudential Center.

“It was a better look than I thought,” said Vujacic, who finished with 14 points and made four 3-pointers, but couldn’t get that one to fall. “For some reason, I saw the point guard [Collison] coming and I thought I had my guy [Brandon Rush, who got screened by Lopez] right on me. I didn’t get my legs underneath me. I didn’t execute it the way I should’ve. That’s on me.”

And so, four made free throws by Collison later, another Nets’ comeback -- they trailed by 11 with 2:24 remaining in the fourth quarter -- fell short.

They’ve now lost four in a row, dropped to 22-47 overall, and are eight games behind Indiana for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 13 games left.

Vujacic -- he of the missed 3-pointer -- had made the playoffs in each of his first six seasons in the league, been to three NBA Finals and won two of them. But barring a miracle, the Nets aren’t qualifying for the postseason. So this first -- not making the playoffs -- still hasn’t sunk in yet.

“It’s tough to accept,” Vujacic said. “We’ve been trying hard and we’ve been doing some progress, but right now like you said mathematically it’s still there. We gotta win in Cleveland. Anything is possible.”

Perhaps. Just not for this Nets team, which managed to blow its second double-digit lead in as many days. They led the Washington Wizards by 17 in the first half, only to fall on Sunday. And they did it again on Monday night, extending to a 12-point cushion, only to lose it -- and the game -- as well.

After the game, a reporter asked head coach Avery Johnson if he and his team were “quietly embracing” the possibility of making the playoffs.

“We are quietly embracing trying to win a game right now,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re quietly embracing. All we are trying to talk about is getting on the plane, going to Cleveland and seeing if we can have a start, play well at the end of quarters, and hopefully have a better close.”

They’ll have to do all that, of course, without the services of star point guard Deron Williams, who missed his second straight game with a strained tendon in his right wrist. And the Nets' 28th-ranked offense on Monday night could only be described as sporadic without him.

New Jersey sputtered in the third quarter, scoring just 17 points and shooting just 24.1 percent. And despite rebounding to score 37 points and shoot 59.1 percent in the fourth quarter, it was too little, too late.

The same goes for the Nets’ five-game winning streak that gave the team some hope of reaching the playoffs.

Too little. Too late.

Because all of a sudden reality has set in. A cold, hard reality at that.

That's what happens when your 4-28 road team has eight games away from home this season.

And that's what happens late in a game when you need to get a key bucket and your star is sitting on the bench wearing a gray suit.

Perhaps former Net Troy Murphy said it best when talking about his uncertain future with the team.

“It is what it is.”