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'Make It Rain' - The Nets' 3-Point Thunderstorm

January 27, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.The Nets sculpted a team of shooters to complement the penetration of All-Star point guard Deron Williams and the post presence of center Brook Lopez. But when Lopez broke his foot before the season started, it threw the plan into disarray. Only in recent weeks, after a slow start, have the shooters begun to show why they were brought in: to drown opponents in a three-point thunderstorm.

"Make it rain, rain / Make it, make it rain, rain
Make it rain, rain / Make it, make it rain, rain"

The staccato sample from Travis Porter's lascivious rap cut blares from the speakers. Or would. But the game is on the road, and the Nets can't control opposing soundsystems.

At the Wells Fargo Center, guard Anthony Morrow settles for crowd silence. His three has put the Nets back ahead of the Sixers, 80-78, with 1 minute, 9 seconds to play. The game goes into overtime, but the Nets hit two more three-pointers, the second a dagger by Deron Williams on a vicious crossover step-back that left Jodie Meeks scrambling to his left and then, desperately, lunging back right with an outstretched arm nowhere close to the shot's release. They win, 97-90.

The Nets finish the game 12-of-27 from downtown, a .444 percentage that pulls their season total up to .354 middle of the NBA pack (13th), but well above the 30-percent plateau they hovered below for the season's first seven games. Since breaking out with a 15-of-31 (.484) barrage that beat the Raptors on January 6, the Nets have bombed away at a .389 clip. That mark would rank fourth in the league, just ahead of the Heat (.388) and tucked behind the Magic (.392), Pacers (.395) and Celtics (.416).

"That was a shock at the beginning, when Anthony wasn't making his 3s, and a lot of our three-point shooters weren't making shots, because I thought that's something we could do," says general manager Billy King. "And I think a lot of that was the fatigue and leg fatigue. But I think now they've got their legs under them, and that's who we are right now, when you don't have a post-up game."

Aha! The underlying cause: that lack of the man in the middle. The one who had been there every game for three straight seasons, who had a shooting touch that allowed him to drift 18 feet away, even with the post game and size to score on most any center in the NBA. The one whose mere presence as a post player seems now to have been unappreciated.

When fourth-year center Brook Lopez hurt himself during the Nets' final preseason game, the injury didn't seem like something major. Just a tweak of the ankle, nothing he couldn't play through. But the post-game X-ray revealed a stress fracture of the right fifth metatarsal, the long bone along the outside of his foot.

And with that, Lopez was scheduled for surgery, a screw set to be inserted and an offense left to be re- centered. With a 6-to-8 week timetable established for Lopez's likely return, the Nets would need to orient the offense around other options.

King struck the first move, using ample cap space to swap a 2015 second-round choice to the Jazz for center Mehmet Okur, a former teammate of Williams on an expiring deal that wouldn't hamper future flexibility. Okur, himself a career .375 shooter from three-point range, only added another capable marksmen. He has been slotted in the starting lineup alongside Williams (.353 career 3P%), DeShawn Stevenson (.340 career) and MarShon Brooks (.365 this season); Morrow (.445 career), Jordan Farmar (.460 this season, .363 career) and Shawne Williams (.345 career) all come off the bench.

"We don't have too much of a post up game, so the 3 has to be a weapon for us with Brook out," says Nets coach Avery Johnson. "We need guys to take and make their 3s, spread the floor for us. If we can do that, then hopefully it will help our penetration game."

Take and make the Nets have. The team leads the NBA in attempts (486) and its 172 makes matches the Magic for the league's best. The Spurs, third-most in three-pointers made, have connected on only 143. It's no surprise, then, that the team's success has hinged on its shooters swishing long-distance buckets: In six wins, the Nets are shooting 66-of-172 (.384); in 13 losses, 106-of-314 (.338).

Right now, opponents have a better chance of weathering the storm at Prudential Center, where the Nets have won two of their last three games. In seven home games, the team is shooting only 54-of-186 (.289) from long range. But they found more success from shorter distance during their last homestand, shooting .467 on two-point attempts in three games against the Warriors, Thunder and Bobcats: even the threat of this three-point revival has opened up the offense.

And opposing coaches have noticed. Warriors first-year man Mark Jackson credits the Nets for battling through the adjustment, praising Johnson for finding ways to keep the team in ballgames. Bobcats coach Paul Silas, before a 97-87 loss to the Nets on January 22, spoke highly of the team's ability:

"Their three-point shooting is really good, but normally they have a post-up guy they can go to, sort of like Orlando. You've got to figure out what to do with him, and if not, they'll throw it out for 3. Not having that guy, they don't really execute as well as they do with Brook Lopez, but they still let 'em fly, and you have to contest those shots in order to have a chance."

To a man, the Nets will tell you the recent and hopefully sustainable success is due to players' individual timing returning as the team's comfort level on court increases. Lopez's injury is but one of several complicating factors. The lockout notably compressed the schedule to 66 games in 122 days, while also shortening training camp and the preseason to a two-week period that overlapped with free agency.

Wielding significant cap space, the Nets explored free agent option after option, eventually adding Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams, Kris Humphries and Stevenson, then Okur via trade. But Shawne Williams missed most of camp, suffering from a vicious flu, while Stevenson and Okur both joined the team just days before the season opener in Washington. Rookie Brooks hadn't been in contact with the team all summer, a time that normally offers transition via the NBA Summer League and guided workouts with team staff at team facilities.

Once the season started, a series of injuries and conditioning issues led to the Nets using nine different starting lineups before hitting on a group they intended to play going forward: Deron Williams, Brooks, Stevenson, Humphries and Okur. That lineup, the first this year to last three straight games, lasted four total; Brooks has missed the team's last two games with a sore Achilles, and is a gametime decision tonight, as are Humphries (illness) and Okur (back spasms).

Even still, the shooting rhythm has pounded a consistent beat. "I think (we're) just being a little more fluid, getting to our right spacing," Farmar says. "When people converge or rotate and make the right play, we can get our shooters better shots. That's all it is. Nothing changed with the X's and O's in the offense; it's just a matter of our execution."

Stevenson pointed to Williams' recent five-game stretch of impressive play (21.4 PPG, 9.4 APG, 5.4 RPG, .444 FG%), which includes a game-tying drive and game-winning three against the Sixers, and Brooks' unexpected ability to create in isolation this early in his fledgling career. Those two handling the pressure to create, Stevenson says, opens up shots for the now-confident snipers.

As for Morrow, whose .445 career three-point field goal percentage ranks No. 2 all-time, he's noticed the improved shooting benefitting Williams and Brooks as well. Whether chicken or egg, no one can be certain, but the result is the same. And the feeling is relief.

"With me and MarShon, or me and Jordan, or me and Deron on the weak side, teams don't want to come off that corner to help," Morrow says. "So they'll stay on me, and that's getting wide open shots for Deron, Jordan and MarShon as well. That's helping our team offensively, and I'm just glad to be able to do that."

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