Brook Lopez, Nets Not Worth Believing In Until They Prove They Can Overcome Injuries, Inconsistency

Spencer Hawes, Brook LopezSpencer Hawes is not having a good season.

No matter what his statistical line looks like, with his highest per-game scoring average in three years and a rebounding average that is only six-tenths off his season-high of last season, the underwhelming play of Hawes and his fellow Philadelphia big men has contributed hugely to the Sixers’ struggles. In fact, Hawes may be the one person most thankful to Andrew Bynum, whose ongoing injury soap opera has kept Hawes from being this year’s most disappointing Sixers center.

For the better part of 34 glorious minutes on Monday, however, Hawes was the best player on the floor. As the Sixers pushed for a close, yet convincing, victory over the Brooklyn Nets, Hawes went for 24 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and two blocked shots, barking and high-fiving in his usual way the entire time. When things are going poorly for Hawes, his demonstrative nature can wear thin. When things are going well, few players are more openly enthusiastic.

It was fitting that the guy who helped make Hawes look so good is also having a misleadingly effective season statistically. Brook Lopez, fresh off his first All-Star game appearance and on pace to average more than 18 points per game for the fourth straight season, flailed or stood by helplessly down the stretch while Hawes ran amok. Seldom has a 19-point performance by an All-Star 7-footer so clearly illustrated why a team is not ready to be taken seriously in an increasingly intriguing Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The Nets hold the No. 4 seed in the East, entered Monday’s game on a three-game winning streak and currently maintain the head-to-head tiebreaker over two of the three teams chasing them in the standings. The franchise is doing exactly what owner Mikhail Prokhorov promised it would do in its first year in Brooklyn, rocketing up eight spots in the standings from a season ago and positioning itself as a favorite to win at least one playoff series. A year ago, nobody on the Nets would have been disheartened by a nine-point loss on the road. They simply would have been happy not to get run off the court.

But for all their improvements, the Nets remain difficult to believe in. One line from interim coach P.J. Carlesimo on Monday perfectly captured the reasons why.

“This game meant more to them than it meant to us,” Carlesimo told reporters after the game.

Too often, that is how the Nets look. Slow. Indifferent. Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace provide veteran leadership, a quality the organization was eager to play up before the season. Yet all three have suffered from inconsistency and injuries.

Williams started slow and only recently claimed to have finally shaken the soreness in both ankles. Johnson has looked uncertain playing alongside a point guard of Williams’ caliber for the first time in years, and now he is dealing with a bruised left heel injury that sounds similar to one that sapped Paul Pierce‘s effectiveness at the beginning of last season. Wallace spent the entire fourth quarter Monday on the bench, losing minutes to Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche.

Meanwhile, the whole approach makes the team look old, even while the Nets share a division with the Celtics and Knicks, two of the more “experienced” clubs in the league. The Nets are dead last in pace at 91.0 possessions per 48 minutes, a reflection not just of their style but their tendency to be too deliberate on offense. Johnson no longer is “Iso Joe” in practice — his 14.8 shots per game is his lowest average since 2005 — but the Nets’ grinding style as a team creates the same effect, with or without Johnson dribbling out the shot clock for a contested jump shot.

Still, none of the Nets’ potential issues are as troubling as Lopez. It is hard to think of another All-Star who appears as apologetic for dominating as Lopez does. He burst out of the gates with 14 points in the first quarter on Monday, then disappeared. He took four shots after the first quarter and did not attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarter, when Hawes went 2-for-3 with three rebounds to put the finishing touches on his night. This all came two nights after Lopez erupted for 14 points in the second half of a win over the Hawks, so the Stanford product is capable of taking control of a game.

It cannot be said Lopez contributed nothing against the Sixers, however. He did commit two personal fouls, which at least meant he denied two easy layups, right?

Actually, no. Lopez’s first fourth-quarter foul gave Hawes an and-one opportunity on a layup that stretched Philadelphia’s lead to nine points. The other foul was intentional to stop the clock in the waning seconds. Sorry, no silver lining here for Brook.

Listen, as far as a one-year improvement goes, this season should be marked down as a rousing success for the Nets, no matter how things go the rest of the way. Prokhorov has given Brooklyn a professional sports team the borough can be proud of, and the Nets’ overtime victory over the Knicks in November brought catharsis for a group of neighborhoods tired of living in Manhattan’s shadow. Plus, the Barclays Center seems cool.

The Nets just have too many holes — no pun intended — for their style to gloss over their substantial lack of substance. They need to get healthy. They need to find a consistent rotation, however late in the season it may be. They need Lopez to be more than an observer when it counts.

Most of all, they need to keep guys like Spencer Hawes from going off. That might be the best place to start.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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