by Sherman Johnson

The last time I was at the Izod Center, it was being fronted by Continental Airlines. The Cavs just eliminated the Nets, and I stood face-to-face with LeBron James edging through the throng of journalists in the visiting locker room on the way to the showers. Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and the rest of the team were pretty dejected afterward and the organization’s plans for a new stadium in Brooklyn were officially in limbo. Walking past the Atlantic rail yards last weekend, it looked like they were still in limbo as ground had yet to be significantly broken. The place was darker than a subway tunnel at four in the morning. The Nets looked to be in limbo last night losing to Indiana after a dull, spiritless effort.

The only holdovers from the last time I’d attended were Lawrence Frank, Sean Williams (who didn’t see action until the fourth period), Josh Boone and Vince Carter. The new look of Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez and Devon Harris (inactive, day-to-day with a sprain) looks fresh, but it’s hardly a complete overhaul as the offense is fundamentally the same by going through Carter who’s still his old streaky self. Tonight he was hot on 11-21 shooting including two from way out to end with 28. I honestly can’t remember if he scored driving to the basket in the first half. He started off sluggish like the rest of the team missing his first few shots as the team trailed nearly by double digits early in the quarter.

It’s frustrating watching Vince when he makes it easy on his opponents and settles for the fall away from another area code even when he makes it because it doesn’t bode well for the team. They start standing around on the perimeter waiting for him to make his move. Keyon Dooling started at the point in place of Harris but Carter did a lot of the ball handling, and he didn’t have the quickness to get around Jarrett Jack who guarded him most of the night. Carter took advantage of the height advantage for a lot of uncontested shots but forced a lot of shots with Marquis Daniels who had the size to challenge him.

The Nets hardly went down low to their big men though. Yi hardly got the ball down low and when he did, he gave it up quick. Yi shot poorly but showed impressive range from three-point range by nailing a couple at the start of the second half. Nevertheless, he was ineffective and hardly asserted his presence down low where he could be grabbing all eight of his rebounds on the defensive end and finishing with 11 points. The same, and more, is true of Brook Lopez but at least he crashed went hard to the offensive boards to keep hope alive off some of VC’s misfires.

The Pacers looked to be at a disadvantage without their leading scorer Danny Granger and leading rebounder Troy Murphy as well as Mike Dunleavy. This put T.J. Fordmore pressure on their shorter bench but Jarrett Jack and Stephen Graham responded to the challenge with 13 and 12, respectively. Their bench outscored the Knicks by a few points but their collective hustle provided an edge. T.J. Ford vic’d the Nets on both ends of the floor. Grasshopper made life difficult for anyone from the Nets back–and frontcourt trying to get past him into the lane. Like Nate Robinson, he’s an irascible little *!@#% on defense when bigger opponents try to bully foot down low. He was responsible for many of the Nets’ 18 turnovers, disappearing and reappearing like a genie around his man to jab the ball away, and he had a hand in three steals. Daniels, Jack and Graham had two each and five other players had one for a grand tally of 15! Four Pacer starters scored in double figures, and they out-hustled the Nets. How else to explain how T. J. Ford led the team with eight rebounds?

The biggest lead the Pacers had was 16. The Nets pulled even in the first half and led by 2 but that was as close as it got. They made a push late in the game but Jeff Foster was the X-factor. He had a quiet game but delivered the death stroke when he out-muscled and outmaneuvered Sean Williams late in the fourth to keep hope alive for a couple of second-chance scores when the Nets were breathing down the Pacers’ necks.

Interestingly, Williams was the spark to the Nets’ surge when he entered a few minutes into the fourth and broke free for an easy tip-in and then streaking in for a two-handed tomahawk cram from the left wing after forcing Ford into a Carter-like fall-away baseline jumper and igniting the break. But then after a time-out Foster forced him into a couple of bad shot by simply leaving him wide open foul line extended. He got away with a couple of offensive tap-outs that could’ve been whistled for over the back and then bodied Williams for a rebound off an air ball for the score plus one. When the Nets called timeout there weren’t enough speed bumps to stem the tide of 13,551 “fans” flooding out into the aisles and streaming out the exits.

Afterward in the pressroom Lawrence Frank characterized the evening as “disappointing,” essentially beating themselves with their “upright, hands down” defense but he also took the blame for the inconsistency, admitting that he was still shuffling the line-up to get a better look at players he’d hadn’t had time to thoroughly evaluate in the preseason. Meanwhile, Sean Williams was in the locker room seething even after a shower, ice-grilling in the corner after a backhanded compliment from one of my colleagues. Just about everyone in there looked gassed, including Vince Carter but then he always looks like that every time I’ve seen him, like there’s an invisible force-field around him that demands space.

Keyon Dooling did most of the talking and he sounded like V.C. and everybody else looked but his comment about players taking the opportunity to step up when someone integral goes down strikes a cord since I’m standing next to an iced-down Jarvis Hayes who looks beat after finishing with 15 points and seven boards. Now that Harris is day-to-day, Hayes could be seeing 30-plus minutes on any given night. Even with Harris back, he’ll get the opportunity to shine ahead of Eduardo Najera (who looks lost), Trenton Hassell, and Bobby Simmons because of his all-around athleticism. He’s got a decent handle for a small forward (perhaps better than Carter’s and he can run the two) and is quick enough off the dribble slashing to the hole open up enough opportunities to knock down shots from the perimeter. He knocked down 6-12 shots including one beyond the arch (off three attempts) but the question remains of whether he can be consistent.

Josh Boone got off to a good start but hardly saw any action in the second half. Not sure if he was injured (he looked the worse for wear after the game) or if Frank wanted to see more of Lopez but his consistency is more than questionable, as is the rest of the big men on the roster. The Nets have a huge front court but there’s really no one who can score with his back to the basket. The offense going through Carter doesn’t really allow post-up play. And even if the guards were more confident in going inside to the big men, they’re not aggressive enough to really assert themselves though they do have a lot of potential, especially Yi. He leads the team in rebounding (by slim margin over Boone) with eight a game while managing to score in double figures every night on average in only his second year. He runs the court as well as Dirk Nowitzki but he’s just as awkward when it comes to putting the ball on the floor and driving to the basket. He had a hard time handing a cross-court pass from Dooling on a breakaway late in the first half and an even harder time finishing because he was too busy gathering and then fumbling it out of bounds over two smaller opponents he could’ve crushed if he had the explosiveness of a Stoudemire. Then again, how many other big men can bring it geometrically like Amare from a variety of angles?

Yi will probably never develop that ability but he can still be as much an impact as the Nets expect him to be. More patience than the Bucks exhibited is key, though. After all, the Nets are in the midst of rebuilding, and in these tight economic times (the Nets are giving out free tickets to the unemployed!) that could take more time than the economy does to recover.