NEWARK, N.J. -- As the ball made its revolution around the rim, New Jersey Nets head coach Avery Johnson -- all 5-feet, 11 inches of him -- desperately wanted to “grab a broom stick and punch it out.”
But with no broom stick in hand, Johnson was nothing more than a helpless observer in front of his team’s bench, agonizing as the ball eventually found its way off the right side of the front rim, then around its circumference, and then in, crushing the Nets‘ hopes of winning three straight games for the first time since Jan. 31-Feb. 7, 2009 in the process.
Stephen Graham had done everything he could to contest Dirk Nowitzki’s off-balance, fadeaway jumper in the lane with six seconds left. But despite holding Nowitzki just to 6-for-24 shooting, the Mavericks to just 34.7 percent shooting and just 87 points, the Nets didn’t have enough. In crunch time, with the game line, hanging in the balance, it seems like they never do.
Not only did they get a bad bounce, they also failed to execute down the stretch. And it ended, like it usually does, in a loss.
Nowitzki’s jumper -- along with two failed offensive possessions by the Nets -- proved to be the difference as New Jersey fell, 87-86, to Dallas on Saturday night in front of 14,051 at the Prudential Center.
“It’s difficult,” said center Brook Lopez, who overcame foul trouble to net a team-high 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting in 28 minutes. “We fought all four quarters. It came down to the wire. Dirk hit a tough shot. Hump [Kris Humphries] got screened. I think it was [Graham] who switched on to him. He played him very well. Forced him into a tough one, and it just rolled in there. It hit every part of the rim and went in.”
“Oh man, I couldn't buy one tonight,” said Nowitzki, who also finished with 24 points. “I don't know what's going on. I'm running in quick sand out there man. I can't make a move, got no legs. Even the last one really didn't want to go in. It was an ugly game again for us offensively, shooting in the 30s, but at least we found a way to win tonight.”
On the ensuing possession, the Nets (12-32) had a chance to walk off with a victory. But, as is usually the case in these scenarios, their execution was sorely lacking.
They designed a play where point guard Devin Harris would catch the ball at the top of the key. Then Lopez would come up high, set a screen and roll to the basket for a catch and shoot.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way.
After Harris caught the ball and Lopez screened, the Mavericks (28-15) closed off his passing lane to Lopez underneath. He threw a pass to Jordan Farmar on the left wing, but Farmar was heavily covered and his desperation shot fell short as time expired.
“Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get that last play executed and came I’m one point shy,” Johnson said. “We had it set up for Brook, but we just didn’t get it in there.”
And so another valiant and resilient effort by the Nets went for naught.
They trailed 82-75 with 4:43 remaining, but countered with an 8-0 run capped by a 3-pointer by Sasha Vujacic to take an 83-82 lead with 2:33 left. After Jose Juan Barea hit a jumper to put the Mavericks ahead, Lopez was fouled and connected on a pair of free throws to put the Nets back in front, 85-84. Harris had a chance to extend the lead even further, but he split a pair of free throws with 51 seconds left.
The Nets thought they’d caught a break 16 seconds later when Tyson Chandler bricked the front end of a pair at the stripe, but Harris’ off-balance, contested jumper by Shawn Marion was an airball, setting up Nowitzki’s isolation play and the eventual game-winner.
“Devin and Brook down the stretch, those guys are our playmakers,” Johnson said. “That’s been very successful for us. The shot [on the second-to-last possession] just didn’t go down.”
“Marion didn’t get a piece of the ball, but he made me shoot it a bit higher than I wanted,” Harris said.
If Johnson had a broom stick, he probably would’ve smacked Marion’s out-stretched arm away as well. He also would’ve knocked the lid off the Mavericks’ basket during the fourth quarter -- because the Nets couldn’t buy one. They went just 6-for-29 in the final 12 minutes.
“We just stood there and stopped moving the ball,” said Johnson, whose team connected at a 49.1 percent clip through the first three quarters.
The Nets can take solace in the fact that they’ve played three solid games in a row.
At this point, the Carmelo Anthony rumors are on life support -- and as Johnson alluded to on Wednesday night, they seem to be playing “freer” than they had been amid all the speculation.
“Yes, it’s probably had something to do with the trade stuff calming down and guys getting back focused,” Harris said. “And part of it’s being at home and being comfortable too.”
In the end, Nowitzki, former Net Jason Kidd and owner Mark Cuban were able to have the last laugh.
But the Nets are hoping experiences like this one will help them down the road. They haven’t yet, but Johnson is convinced they will.
So is owner Mikhail Prohkorov. Otherwise he wouldn’t have pulled the Nets out of the Anthony talks in the first place. This team, one of the youngest in the NBA, going to have to continue to learn and grow.
And eventually, they’ll be the ones executing in crunch time and getting the lucky bounces to go their way.
They didn’t on Saturday. There was no broom stick.
Just Snooki. And her poof wasn't long enough.