'Different' Nets set to host nemesis Spurs

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Brooklyn Nets were throttled by the San Antonio Spurs on New Year’s Eve. They trailed by as many as 32, losing 113-92 only because Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called off the dogs and inserted his reserves for the fourth quarter.

Another season. Another Dec. 31 butt-whooping in San Antonio.

“We were embarrassed,” Deron Williams said. “It was embarrassing.”

The Nets, 10-21 at the time, had been called a “bush-league organization” by Stan Van Gundy before the game -- and did absolutely nothing to prove him wrong by the time it was over.

The team had a “tough practice” the following day, Joe Johnson recalled.

Johnson then played buzzer-beating hero Jan. 2 in Oklahoma City, and the Nets have gone 11-4 since.

“It was the same thing last year,” Williams said. “I don’t know what it was about losing to them right before the New Year, we’ve just been a different team since then. Honestly, for whatever reason, I don’t really care why or how, it just happened.”

Well, there were a lot of factors that went into their turnaround: health (Brook Lopez notwithstanding), going to a smaller lineup, making adjustments on defense and finding an identity are just some of them.

Like Williams said, as they get set to host the Spurs Thursday night at Barclays Center, the Nets are a different team now. And yet, Brooklyn is 1-20 in its last 21 regular-season meetings with San Antonio. The last time the Nets beat the Spurs? Try March 29, 2010, their 10th victory of their infamous 12-70 campaign.

Crazy, isn’t it, that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli were beating Jason Kidd the player’s New Jersey Nets in the 2003 NBA Finals. Since then, Kidd has become a coach and the Nets have moved to Brooklyn. As for the Spurs’ Big Three? Well, they just keep winning.

“They just -- they’re like wine, fine wine, they seem to get better with age,” Williams said. “Even in my career with the [Utah] Jazz, we had trouble beating them. They just play the right way, well-coached. It just seems like they’ve had their Big Three and they just keep slugging different role players in that accept their role and do their job and they just fit well together.”

A major storyline within Thursday night’s matchup: the possibility that reportedly hated rivals Kevin Garnett and Duncan face one another for the final time. Duncan leads the all-time regular-season series, 26-17, but it’s possible that either or both could retire at season’s end.

It’s certainly a clash of personalities: KG the trash-talker, Duncan the quiet assassin, each future Hall of Famer dominating in his own unique way.

It would’ve been nice to get Garnett’s take on this, but he wasn’t made available, and hasn’t spoken to the media since Saturday.

“I’ve never been around Tim Duncan other than at All-Star games, but on the outside looking in, him and KGs personality I would say is like night and day, know what I mean?” Johnson said. “I think both are great leaders in retrospect. KG is more…I don’t know, man, he’s always engaged with his passion for the game.

“Not to say Duncan doesn’t have passion, but KG shows it. He shows his passion every night, every day, every night, whether its practice, games. I’m sure Duncan has his ways, his form of how he communicates with his team or tries to lead the team in the right direction.”

Added D-Will of KG: “He’s one of those players you hate to play against and love to play with.”

Given the recent history between the two teams, the Nets are expected to lose this game. But a win would obviously serve as a statement, another indication that they really have turned things around.