The difference between the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers and the New Jersey Nets didn’t become apparent until the final 2 minutes, 44 seconds Sunday afternoon at Prudential Center.
That was when Kobe Bryant decided he’d had enough.
Black Mamba was finally ready to close.
Bryant’s dribble-drive penetration led to assists on consecutive layups by Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, sparking an 8-0 run that broke an 87-87 deadlock and sent the Nets to their seventh consecutive loss -- a season-worst -- by a final of 99-92.
“Kobe Bryant. That’s the difference.” Nets head coach Avery Johnson said. “They throw him the ball. And he just made some plays. He beat some of our coverages. He made the correct pass at the right time.
“At the end of the day, he’s a great closer.”
During his postgame press conference, Johnson spoke highly of his young and inexperience team. He raved about how the Nets held the Lakers to just 41.5 percent shooting, limited Gasol to 6-of-19 from the floor and scored 58 points in the paint, despite going 4-of-20 from 3-point range. He was proud of the way they fought back from a double-digit second-half deficit, eventually forging an 87-87 tie with 2:44 left.
But from that point on, the Nets went 2-of-10 from the field. And that’s when the Lakers -- carried by their superstar -- took over.
In the end, the difference wasn’t youth and inexperience. It was personnel -- and namely Bryant.
“Today, we did a good job spacing out, particularly when I had isolations,” said Bryant, who overcame a 1-of-6 first half to drop in a game-high 32 points -- 25 of which came in the second half -- on 9-of-19 shooting. “Guys were cutting. They weren’t just standing around.”
After Gasol put the Lakers up 88-87 with a free throw, the Nets stood watched Harris try to create space for himself and flip up a running jumper that clanged off the iron. Then, after Bryant got inside the paint and fed Gasol for an easy deuce, it was Harris again on an isolation, this time bricking a contested fadeaway jumper. Bryant followed by orchestrating another drive and dish -- this one to Odom -- and all of a sudden the disparity was five. A turnover by Brook Lopez led to an Odom 3-pointer from the top of the key seconds later.
Just like that, the gap was eight. And just like that, the game was over.
“I can’t get down on our guys,” said Johnson, whose team dropped to 6-18. “Our personnel is what it is. These guys have been battling since Sept. 25.”
There’s only so much battling, though, that a team full of supporting cast members can do. Because when it comes down to it, championship teams have the personnel to be able to close out games. And looking up and down the Nets’ roster, which features 11 new players from last season’s 12-70 campaign, there aren’t any true closers.
“I think they have a lot of players that do the same thing, in essence,” Bryant said. “When you’re rebuilding, you’ve got to find pieces of the puzzle and put them together. Mix and match until they fit. And have versatility. On our team here, we have players that do all different things, so the pieces fit extremely well together.”
Between the veteran Devin Harris (16 points, 10 assists), emerging 22-year-old center Brook Lopez (25 points, nine rebounds), explosive 19-year-old rookie Derrick Favors (eight points, five rebounds) and versatile 23-year-old swingman Terrence Williams (seven points, four rebounds, three assists), the Nets have several players they can build around.
But they still lack a go-to option like Bryant they can defer to in crunch time.
In the offseason, they'd hoped that option would eventually be LeBron James. It didn’t happen. And now, it appears that a Carmelo Anthony trade/extension isn’t going to happen either.
So, just as it’s happened earlier in the season with the game on the line, the Nets are going to be finishing second and ending up with the consolation prize, rather than claiming the winner’s hardware. They are just 5-10 in games decided by 10 or fewer points and 3-8 in games decided by five or fewer points.
Still, Johnson holds out hope that they’ll eventually be ready to close games.
When? He doesn’t know.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like consolation prizes, I don’t coming in second,” But I like maximum effort. We’re not ready to close these types of games yet. Hopefully we’ll get there one day.”
They won’t if they don’t have a Bryant, James or Anthony type on their roster.
That much is certain.