With one more day (and one game!) left on their week-long excursion to the NBA China Games 2010, the Nets "hit the wall" in practice on Friday, coach Avery Johnson said in a conference call with media that took place before said practice ever technically happened for us folks living in the GMT -5 time zone. Wrap your head around that one!
Johnson explained that after visiting the Great Wall on Thursday, the team seemed off during Friday's practice, which led him to cancel the shootaround before tomorrow's game (7:30 a.m. ET, NBATV).
"We’re just going to hang around the hotel, have a breakfast meeting, and try to stay fresh for the game," Johnson said. "I know in the back of their minds they know we’re going to be returning home after the game tomorrow but we’ve got to get something out of this game. With us only having two more preseason games after tomorrow night, (the game) is critical."
That in mind, Johnson will send out Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, Joe Smith and Brook Lopez for the tipoff. Smith is the third player to start at power forward during the preseason, with Johnson now looking for more offense than he's received from Kris Humphries (two starts; 3.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG) and rookie Derrick Favors (three; 6.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG). Troy Murphy's indefinite absence (strained back) has left Johnson experimenting for an effective combination, and it's now Smith – a 15-year veteran and 1995's No. 1 overall pick – who will attempt to earn the starting nod.
Beyond the 4, Johnson's seeking fewer defensive breakdowns early in the game, but mostly wants to discover an offensive identity beyond Lopez's post-ups and Harris' penetrations. Swingmen Morrow (8.8 PPG, .341 FG%) and Outlaw (9.6, .372) have not been shooting well, still seemingly feeling their way out in the offense, and the only real support production has come from versatile sixth man Terrence Williams (12.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, .464 FG%).
"We’re in the lab right now," Johnson said. "We’ve said it all along and nothing has changed from our situation. We’re still in the experimental phase and we have a couple of things we can hang our hats on and others we’re still working on different facets of our game. That’s okay. We’re probably going to be in the same place halfway through the season." Walking the Wall
Johnson and his team trekked part of the Great Wall on Thursday, with the coach, Brian Zoubek, Joe Smith and Avery's assistant, Kim Blanco, reaching the highest point. Johnson said it felt like 5,000 stairs.
"I think it took us a total of probably an hour and 30 minutes and I don’t ever want to see a step again in my life," Johnson half-joked. "It wasn’t that many people that actually went all of the way. I think my pride kicked in. I was challenged by someone who said I couldn’t do it, and I think that competitive spirit came out in me."
Johnson said it was an incredible experience to actually walk the Wall, which he was previously most familiar with as the subject
of one of Avery Jr.'s school projects. But the coach said he's feeling the effects all over his body: calves, hamstrings and back. The tourist outing was one of several the team has undertaken since arriving in China on Sunday, and Johnson confirmed that they've been bonding beyond basketball.
"Mission accomplished," Johnson said. "We have bonded. We had time to go to Russia and spend some time with our owner Mikhail Prokhorov and put some kids through a camp there. There’s also downtime for us; when we’re sitting in the locker room, when we’re on the bus together, having breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. I’m really enjoying the bonding experience as I watch our players. It’s also been good for our coaching staff. As much as people say our players are all new, our coaching staff is still new to one another." Favors Still a Favorite
Despite a recent string of struggles, Johnson remains fully confident in No. 3 overall pick Derrick Favors:
"I’m not concerned about Derrick Favors at all. I’m not making excuses for him. If you know anything about me, that’s not my M.O. I just state the facts. Derrick Favors is a 19-year-old rookie. Right now, he could legitimately be a freshman in college based on his age situation. So I am not concerned. I’m not worried about Derrick Favors.
He’s going to be great. He’s going to be just fine. This is growing pains for him. If you look at his college situation, he didn’t significantly improve until the second half of his season. Again, I’m not looking for Favors to really start making some improvements until about the 30th game this year. We knew that when we drafted him, and he’s right on schedule. We love him."
Caught this morning's Nets-Rockets game on NBATV, live-tweeting @netsbasketball along with a fair amount of fans also tracking things. Thought the offense played real well at the jump, running through Devin Harris and Brook Lopez. But that was offset by porous defense, particularly in transition, where Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin were basically running a layup line as the Rockets raced out to a 33-23 lead. After the Nets spent hanging around in the second, a strong third quarter nearly erased the deficit, but the Rockets were able to pull away in the fourth to win, 91-81.
Go figure it was former Net Courtney Lee hitting a (the?) momentum-swinging three with eight minutes to go, giving the Rockets some separation after the split hung at two points for four possessions. He finished with five points, three rebounds, three assists and a steal in 19 minutes off the bench. In line with that, here's a few other observations, with phoned-in, cross-land-and-sea commentary from Devin:
Devin Harris stepped up to Avery's post-practice challenge
Last night, Avery challenged Devin to "go to another level" (see below), and Harris stepped up, finishing with 19 points (5-13 FGs, 9-13 FTs), seven assists and five steals against only two turnovers. Harris' 13 free-throw attempts were by far a preseason high, reflecting overall offensive aggressiveness that included flashes of his 2009 All-Star form, with Harris notably putting a wicked drive, spin-in-place pull-up J on the Rockets' D late in the fourth.
“My goal is to get to the double-digit free throws every game," Harris said. "That lets you know that I’m being aggressive and attacking the paint the way I need to. That’s the best way for me to be helpful on offense, attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line.”
The defense remains a … work in progress
The Rockets simply shredded the Nets in the first quarter, allowing them to maintain an 11-point lead all the way to halftime despite dropping off from 33 points to 20 in the second. They headed to the locker room shooting a tick under 60 percent from the floor, which led to the Nets catching an earful from Avery at halftime.
“We felt like we were giving up too many easy baskets and open shots," Harris said. "On top of that, we weren’t getting on the defensive glass like we needed to and were giving them too many second chance points. Both of those things we wanted to eliminate going into the third quarter.”
To their credit, the Nets did just that, forcing the Rockets to miss their first six field goals and holding Houston to 16 points (5-17 FGs, 5 TOs) while scoring 25. Brook Lopez and Travis Outlaw led the run with seven points each.
Brook Lopez is looking pretty good
We all know Brook's good, but did y'all realize he's averaging 20.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in only 28.2 minutes per game? And the scoring number is skewed low due to an 11-point outing in the preseason opener against Israel's Maccabi Haifa? Yeesh. He put a nasty reverse pivot on Yao to free himself for an up-and-under layup early in the third, and was running the floor with aplomb throughout.
They miss Troy Murphy
Derrick Favors started (22 1/2 minutes) and Kris Humphries subbed in for 15 minutes, but they combined for only four points and seven rebounds. Favors, who finished 0-for-5, seemed invisible for most of his time on the floor and was replaced by Humphries coming out of the half. But Humphries didn't offer much beyond his usual hustle and bustle – to his credit, dude is always active – and Joe Smith ended up checking in for 10 minutes, knocking down a pair of mid-range jumpers and grabbing a pair of rebounds.
Favors has struggled in three of five preseason games, but his point guard believes the 19-year-old rookie remains confident:
“He hasn’t been making most of his shots, but they’re good shots," Harris said. "I think he’s just trying to figure out how to play and come off the bench. We want to go out and be aggressive, I think his confidence is fine. He just needs to see the ball go in the hole a little more.”
T-Will entered the game with 5 1/2 minutes gone by, and promptly reeled off a 16-point, 5-rebound first half.
Too big for Aaron Brooks or Kevin Martin and too quick for anyone stronger, Williams kept getting open and kept firing away, shooting 7-of-11 in 17 minutes on a collection of transition jumpers, layups and fadeaways, seemingly unstoppable.
… until the second half started. The Rockets made some adjustments, and though Williams helped with his defense, he couldn't counter and began to settle for poor shots, sinking only 2-of-9 second-half attempts (4 points).
“I think they took away a lot of his drives to the basket," Harris explained. "He was taking tough floaters and pull-up jump shots in the second half. In the first half, he got to the basket at will and his pull-up was going in transition for the most part. He was very aggressive. In the second half, they took away a lot of those things away and forced him into some tougher shots.”
Until someone else steps up (Morrow? Outlaw? A healthy Murphy?), Williams seems to be the third option after Lopez and Harris. When Williams is on, his exceptional playmaking elevates the offense to challenging levels; when he's off, things can stagnate. His consistency will prove vital to any early success.
You can wear whites, but without a team, the crowd is rooting for their boy
“We were wearing (home) white, but the crowd was definitely chanting for Yao," Harris said. "It was a great atmosphere, we sold out the arena and it was a great game. The fans were great and were very excited. But it was definitely a road game for us.”
The Nets will get another chance to upend the Rockets on Saturday at 7:30 a.m. (NBATV). We'll check in with y'all before then. Be easy.
To anyone who knows this group of Nets, it comes as no surprise that wildly self-assured swingman Terrence Williams was up for approaching team owner Mikhail Prokhorov during the team’s Sunday in Russia. As coach Avery Johnson recalls it, Williams introduced himself simply, saying “Hello, I’m Terrence Williams.” To coach Johnson, the owner’s response was no surprise:
“Mikhail said, ‘Hello, T-Will.’ Terrence got a real kick out of the owner calling him by his nickname. (Mikhail) knows about everyone on the team, he knows where everyone is from. He follows us very closely and it will be exciting to have him at some home games during the season.”
The Nets stopped in Moscow on the way to Beijing, where they’re scheduled to play the Rockets on Wednesday (8 a.m., NBATV) in the NBA China Games 2010. After visiting Moscow's Red Square, several players were on-hand for the opening of an adidas store, before the team traveled to the Alexander Gomelsky CSKA Universal Sports Hall for an open practice and youth clinic.
Johnson said that the team’s practice was one of their best this preseason, and that the players particularly performed well toward the end, when Prokhorov made his appearance to tell the team he believes everyone on the team is here for a specific reason, that he expects them to play hard and have a successful year. Afterward, the coach compared the media crush to his 2006 experience at the NBA Finals.
But they’ve been able to prepare for the Rockets since arriving in Beijing, where they’ve run a morning practice at the Wukesong Culture and Sports Center and participated in an NBA Cares event at Beijing Zhongguancun No. 3 Elementary School. The morning session was spent practicing their defense against “split action” in which the big men serve as a hub on the elbow with smaller players setting screens for each other. They’ll also ready a plan for Yao Ming, though the 7-foot-6 Chinese center will be limited to fewer than 24 minutes as he recovers from a foot injury.
“We need to figure out how to close quarters and finish the half,” Johnson explained. “We have too many duplicate mistakes on defense and careless turnovers. That’s what the preseason is all about, and we haven’t played our best basketball yet. That’s probably not in the cards in the next week or so, but hopefully we can continue to get better and use these practice games as good teaching material for our young basketball team.”
Harris, limited to 20 minutes against Boston on Wednesday as he recovered from a bruised foot, struggled with foul trouble on Saturday against the Bobcats and played only 25 minutes. Johnson had been hoping to run Harris more than 30 minutes, because the point guard – and his new teammates’ familiarity with him – remains crucial to the Nets’ success.
“Devin’s fine,” Johnson said. “I’d like to play him 32 minutes tomorrow night, because 25 minutes the next couple of games isn’t going to cut it. He needs to go to another level in terms of his conditioning, explosiveness, quickness, and defense. He needs to continue to improve. He’s not where we want him to be so far but he had his best practice of the year so far today.”
Center Brian Zoubek, recovering from a back strain, should be eligible for Saturday’s game, which could prove crucial to his hopes of making the team as the third center.
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