Walker, Bobcats knock off struggling Nets 95-91
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We're 12 games in and the Bobcats (6-6) have crawled back to .500 with a 95-91 win over the Brooklyn Nets (3-8). Here's four thoughts from a solid home victory for the Bobcats:
The Kemba Walker breakout everyone had been waiting for happened Wednesday night. Walker took a big leap forward in year two and the expectation was a similar jump might happen in year three. That hadn't been the case so far, but Wednesday night he delivered the one everyone had been waiting on -- a 31 point outing on 12-of-20 shooting that threw back memories of last season's dominant 34-point performance in a home win against Orlando late in the year. "Obviously, Kemba was immense, terrific," head coach Steve Clifford said. All season Walker had shot the ball poorly from deep -- 12-of-46 from three heading into Wednesday night's game -- but he was 4-of-7 from three against the Nets. "I just stayed in my shot. Lately I think I've been taking a lot of off balance shots, making it tough on myself," Walker said. "Ramon [Sessions] and Gerald [Henderson] did a great job making the defense collapse and kicking the ball out and I just made shots." Walker said he's been in the gym a lot recently, trying to get his shot back right, and said he was feeling it in warm ups, so he wanted to make sure he sought his shot early. "Well, he was really aggressive. I think the other thing is he's been banged up. I'm not making excuses for him. The other night in Chicago he had sore ribs," Clifford said. "Tonight you could tell, I think everybody saw right form the get go, he was on the attack and that's when he's at his best." A shoulder injury against New York two weeks ago bothered him a bit as well Clifford said, but Walker insists he's 100 percent healthy now and said at this point everyone's banged up somewhat.
Still, the sight of a confident Walker, seeking his shot and aggressively attacking the rim had to be a beautiful one for Michael Jordan, who came into the locker room post game to congratulate his starting guards. Watching Wednesday night's game, I couldn't shake one thought: How is this Brooklyn Nets team possibly this bad to this point? Isn't this the same team that has six former All-Stars? Isn't this the same team that has two future Hall of Famers? Isn't this the same Joe Johnson making $21 million this year? Has Johnson become the modern day Gilbert Arenas of contracts? Or is that Deron Williams, who went from Summer 2012's biggest prize to perhaps the most expensive 10 points and 6.5 assists per game in NBA history. Isn't Brook Lopez still one of the best offensive centers in the NBA -- albeit a complete waste of seven feet on the glass?
That core of Johnson, Williams and Lopez took them to a 49-33 record and took the Chicago Bulls to seven games in the first round of the playoffs a season ago. And that core added Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- fresh off leading a Rajon Rondo-less Celtics squad -- with little else, mind you -- to the playoffs. Has old age really hit those two and this team that hard? Sure, Andrei Kirilenko , a former All-Star, and Lopez, an All-Star last season, were inactive Wednesday night, and Williams rolled his ankle midway through the second quarter and did not return. And sure, this starting lineup's older than most church league squads, but no one could have expected a team paying $87 million in luxury tax to be 3-8 at this point. I was a believer in the Nets as a challenger to the Heat in the preseason. Pierce and Garnett were going to be the fourth and fifth option, and they had Jason Terry and Kirilenko coming off the bench. It seemed unfair and easy money to finish at least top four in the East, I thought. Far cry so far. Even more baffling was how they played defense Wednesday night.
The Nets frequently tried to get up on the Bobcats players, deny the passing lanes and get physical on cuts. The Bobcats youth and speed exploited it all night, abusing the Nets repeatedly off the pick and roll. "They got up and in to us, so that we were really forced us to drive the ball more," Clifford said. "[Sessions and Walker] really did a good job with that." The Nets' defensive strategy makes even less sense against a team like the Bobcats, who are shooting 30.6 percent from three on the year. The result was as you would expect -- the Bobcats posted the most points in the paint they've had all season (52). "They played up a bit sometimes and their four man came up on the screens, so we just kind of ran around it and were able to score in the paint," Walker said.
And what does it say about this Nets team that the Bobcats went just 3-of-21 in the fourth quarter and still won? Pierce after the game said that they're not doing a good job of defending the pick and rolls and the second and third passes off of those have them "scrambling" and are putting them in precarious recovery situations. But part of the problem is foot speed, and that's something that the Nets are seriously lacking on this roster. You can only hide slow so much on defense in the spread-it-out, pick-and-roll dominated game.
It's definitely early but they have to find a way a way to hide their defensive liabilities if this luxury tax ridden roster is going to develop enough cohesion to rally into a playoff contender. Because right now, the only one who thinks this aging group of veterans look good, is Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who jettisoned his two Celtic lifers and somehow convinced the Nets to mortgage away their future with three first-round picks for them.
Judging by the half empty Time Warner Cable Arena Wednesday night, the fan base just isn't buying that this team's any different than a season ago. A 7-5 start that turned out to be a severe anomaly a year ago has layered the skepticism. But at 6-6 at the same point this year, the Bobcats think this team is different -- and there's reason to buy that they could be right. "I think first of all, we're defending and rebounding -- not as well tonight as we could -- and we've yet to play any sustained period of time with our best offensive player," Clifford said. "So to be 6-6 with the schedule that we've played, playing without Al [Jefferson] in nine of those games, I think speaks well for the job that these guys have done. But also we're playing younger guys, so there's a lot of room for improvement." The strength of schedule argument's weak considering the Bobcats have the second worst strength of schedule so far, but there's a lot of validity to the numbers the Bobcats are putting up on defense and on the backboards. Their rebounding margin's jumped nine spots (from 18th to 27th), and a defense that gave up 102.7 points per game last year has the fourth best scoring defense in the league so far (92.9). "We're capable of a lot, man. We're capable of being really, really good," Walker said. "We just have to be more consistent and Al's definitely going to help us a lot because he draws a lot of attention. If I can keep on having nights like this when he comes back, it'll be great for us."
At what point is there cause for concern in regards to Al Jefferson? We're 12 games in and the $41 million prize has played just three games with a nagging ankle injury that won't seem to go away. First he missed the majority of preseason but played in the opener. He then had a set back and missed five games. He got back for two games, but has since had another setback and missed the last four games. It appears the Bobcats are being cautious this time, hoping that they're sitting him out long enough for him to fully recuperate and prevent any more setbacks. "We're hoping for Friday. He's so disappointed that he couldn't play tonight. He came in and asked one more time right before we had the lineups, 'Let me play, let me play,' but I just feel like this time he hasn't been able to practice as much. We'll practice tomorrow and if he gets through practice and shootaround, I think this time we're more confident that he can get it and go from here."