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Lichtenstein: Lopez, Blatche Rise As Nets' Centers Of Attention

By Steve Lichtenstein
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Dwight who?

Sure I was bummed like the rest of Brooklyn when the Nets failed to close the deal on acquiring All-Star center Dwight Howard over the summer after a year-long tease.  It might be hard trying not to avert my eyes from the hideousness of Howard in Lakers' gold when the Nets travel to Los Angeles on Tuesday night.

But if the Nets keep getting the production from the position like they did in Sunday night's 99-90 victory in Sacramento to open a three-game West Coast swing, it won't be long before I forget the whole Howard soap opera.

The combined numbers from Brook Lopez and Andray Blatche last night:  35 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.  After Lopez started with eight points in the game's first 10 minutes, Blatche went on a ridiculous tear, hitting 11 straight field goal attempts.  Inside, outside, drives, putbacks, post moves—he was a complete offensive package.

Yeah, the opposing forces have gotten in their shots as well during the Nets' 6-2 opening spurt, with the likes of Anderson Varejao and Niko Pekovic putting up obscene statistics as related to their skills thanks to faulty defensive fundamentals in previous games in Brooklyn.  Howard certainly would have made an instant impact in this area if he was granted that one additional wish by the geniuses in Orlando.  But Nets coach Avery Johnson has been tireless in working with his bigs to get a little bit better on the defensive end.

The Nets did a terrific job last night of frustrating Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who may have the maturity of my 7-year old daughter but is also quite talented in the low block.  Cousins did finish with 29 points, but nine of those came in the final minute or so with the Nets up by 10 or 11 points.

Lopez did well to force Cousins into attempting difficult shots and, even more importantly, swatted away three shots helping others protect the rim.  This led Cousins to spend much of the game strolling back on defense with his head down while muttering about the officiating or his teammates' ineptitude.

And Blatche, who in the past seemed to match Cousins in erratic behavior tales while in Washington, showed he is now a grown-up by taking two charges.  In turn, Johnson has grown comfortable playing Blatche alongside power forward Reggie Evans for long stretches because of their defensive chemistry.

The scoring up front has been crucial to the Nets' early success because of the struggles in the high-priced starting backcourt.  Point guard Deron Williams continued to run the show magnificently, compiling 10 assists last night to just two turnovers (one comically on a breakaway when he dribbled the ball off his leg) but his shooting has been inconsistent.

Williams has been banged up, adding a right elbow injury in the second quarter to his pains from his chronic left ankle bone spurs and the right leg shot he took in Thursday's win over Boston.  His 4-for-12 performance was his seventh game of the eight where he failed to better 50 percent from the floor.

Then there's shooting guard Joe Johnson, who I think at this point might not be able to beat Evans in a game of H-O-R-S-E.  Once completely reliable as a scorer, Johnson has had difficulties finding his stroke as a Net, with last night's 1-for-10 outing adding to his woes.  Fortunately, Johnson has been able to deliver points in the clutch, with his eight straight free throws late in the game enabling him to keep pace near the top of the NBA's fourth-quarter scoring list.

Coach Johnson has gotten even less from the small forward slot.  Gerald Wallace finally returned after missing six games with an ankle injury, but did not look up to speed in his 25 minutes of action, committing four turnovers.  Keith Bogans, who had started in Wallace's place, failed to impress and did not even dress last night.

Johnson deserves credit for turning to sophomore MarShon Brooks to stop the bleeding when the Kings made their obligatory run to cut a double-digit Net lead to three with just under 10 minutes remaining.   Brooks responded with nine of his 14 points, including a crushing three-pointer to put the Nets up, 93-82, with 50 seconds left.

But Johnson gets his highest marks for the way he has centered his offense on his centers.  The Nets make a conscious effort to run their early sets through Lopez, who has shown no signs of being limited by last season's injuries to both feet.

Lopez is usually more efficient than last night's 5-for-14 performance and is adept at drawing fouls, where I expect his free throw percentage will rise as the season progresses from the current 63 percent to something closer to his career rate of near 80 percent.

And Blatche, who was amnestied by the Wizards and signed with the Nets as a non-guaranteed free agent, has been as responsible as anyone for the success of the Nets' second unit.  My only worry is that it's a long season—it's possible that Blatche might get too confident and revert to the selfishness that got him run out of Washington.

Then again, winning has a way of fostering peace.  I guess that's why Howard wanted to come here in the first place.  He recognized that the Nets were serious about building a team around Williams that would be a far cry from their laughingstock years in New Jersey.

I'm not ready to anoint the Nets as a contender yet, not with the fortunate breaks they have received in their early-season schedule.  Last night was just the start of a brutal stretch of nine games in 14 days, in three sets of three games in four nights.

At least it's a step in the right direction to be excited about upcoming games instead of moping about what could have been with Dwight Howard.

Was missing out on Howard a blessing in disguise? Sound off in the comments below!

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