By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Nets coach Avery Johnson stopped shy of tagging his struggling unit with the "soft" tag Doc Rivers dropped on the Celtics last month following a disappointing home loss to Brooklyn.
But the raspy-voiced "Little General" didn't mince words when assessing his team's resolve during a brutal 3-9 December in which Brooklyn has gone from potential Eastern Conference contender to slowly sinking ship.
"We kind of dropped our heads a little bit,” Johnson admitted after the Nets' humbling 93-76 Christmas Day loss to Boston before a disappointed sellout crowd of 17,732 at the Barclays Center, not to mention a national television audience via ESPN. “And that’s something that I’ll visit with my team about. If something goes wrong, that’s when you really have to get tougher. And hopefully we’ll do that.”
The Nets (14-13), who opened their inaugural campaign in our fair borough with 11 victories in 15 games to earn a share of first place in the Atlantic Division and an NBA Coach of the Month award for Johnson, are suddenly teetering on the brink of dissolving into the "Same Old Nets".
After snapping a three-game skid with a hardfought 95-92 win over Philadelphia in Brooklyn on Sunday, the Nets appeared primed to re-ignite their simmering rivalry with the Celtics. On Nov. 28 in Beantown, Kris Humprhies and Gerald Wallace were ejected for their part in a well-chronicled skirmish with Boston point guard Rajon Rondo before Brooklyn pulled out an impressive 95-83 win, improving to 2-0 against the five-time defending division champions this season and 10-4 overall.
However, the Nets folded earlier than usual against the Celtics. Their customary third-quarter collapse took place 12 minutes earlier as Brooklyn was outscored 34-18 in the second period and never seriously challenged thereafter. In what is becoming a disturbing trend this month, the Nets again appeared either incapable or unwilling to put up much of a fight in the face of their December swoon.
Making matters worse, they still have four more games to play before the calendar flips to 2013, beginning with Wednesday night's visit to Milwaukee. After visiting the Bucks, the Nets will host Charlotte and Cleveland at the Barclays Center this coming weekend before ringing in the new year in San Antonio on Dec. 31.
But before they can begin looking ahead to better things in January, the Nets must find a way to shake off their hang-dog attitude following bad quarters.
"Losing wears on you and that’s a part of it," noted Wallace, who tied center Brook Lopez for the team high with 15 points Tuesday afternoon. "We have to understand that this is a long season. It’s 82 games. Some stuff, we’ve got to let go. I think we drag stuff over to the next day."
The Nets committed 20 turnovers, including four from struggling $100 million point guard Deron Williams, against Boston. They also were outrebounded, outshot and, sadly, outhustled on their home floor for the better part of the final 36 minutes after taking a narrow 24-22 lead into the second quarter.
So much for holiday cheer.
"Our mistakes, we might drag them over to the next quarter or the next three or four or five minutes," Wallace ceded. "That can be key minutes right there where the game can go from up five to down 10. That’s something we have to get rid of and just let it go. The game moves too fast for you to carry on and hold onto mess up or mistakes."
Though its far too early to start burying a team that sits tied for second place in the Atlantic, 5 1/2 lengths behind the first-place Knicks, and is deadlocked with Boston (14-13) for one of the final two playoff spots in the conference, Brooklyn's inability to battle through adversity needs to be addressed immediately before it becomes a season-long dilemna.
Otherwise, the Nets' December to forget will turn into the winter of Brooklyn's discontent.
Jamal Olasewere tried in vain to bring some yuletide spirit to the Barclays Center on Saturday, but the LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds dropped an 89-58 decision to Seton Hall during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational.
Olasewere scored a game-high 27 points for the Blackbirds (5-6), who dropped to 1-2 since learning they'd be without reigning NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd for the remainder of the season due to a knee injury.
''He can't do everything,'' first-year Blackbirds coach Jack Perri said of his senior standout. ''We're not going to be successful if (we) do that. We have some guys who can make shots."
The Blackbirds will try to regroup at Lamar on Saturday before kicking off their NEC slate Jan. 3 at Sacred Heart. Olasewere and fellow senior starter C.J. Garner won't be available for that contest due to their involvement in an on-campus brawl back in September.
St. Francis Brooklyn (3-7) ended a season-high five-game slide with Saturday's 73-61 triumph over Colgate on Remsen Street Saturday.
Sophomore Jalen Cannon poured in 24 points and senior Travis Nichols added 20 and 12 rebounds for the Terriers, who will visit NJIT on Dec. 30 before opening conference play at Quinnipiac on Jan. 3.
Hoop du Jour: Coach Johnson sat out F Humphries for the third straight game Tuesday with an abdominal strain and the former starter wasn't expected to make the trip to Milwaukee with his teammates. ... The Nets fell to 4-4 all-time on Christmas Day. ... Despite Tuesday's loss, the Nets still own a respectable 11-7 record against conference opponents and are 6-3 vs. Atlantic Division foes. ... G Williams had 10 points, six assists and two rebounds Tuesday before taking himself out in the late stages with an apparent hand injury. "It was a big game for us," Williams said. "It was a division rival. We were ready for a big game. It just didn't happen."