By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Pick a Net. Any Net.
With time winding down and Brooklyn protecting a one-point lead in Detroit on Wednesday night, the Nets had the Pistons right where they wanted them: wondering whom would take the game's pivotal shot.
"You never know who's going to take the last shot on this team. That's the great thing about it," noted shooting guard Joe Johnson, who has hit a trio of game-winners during the franchise's historic first season in our fair borough, following Brooklyn's 93-90 victory.
Winless in their last 10 visits to Motown, the Nets opted to put the game in the hands of 7-foot All-Star center Brook Lopez, who was coming off a 30-point performance against the Lakers at the Barclays Center on Tuesday night, albeit in a game he admittedly cost the team with a series of late turnovers and missed opportunities over the final 2 1/2 minutes.
This time, however, Lopez backed down Pistons center Greg Monroe and powered his way toward the basket before delivering what proved to be the clinching layup with just 17.8 seconds to go as the Nets (29-20) improved to 18-1 against sub-.500 opponents this year and pulled within three games of the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks.
'I was just in the mindset that I wanted to go strong, but more importantly, make the right play," said Lopez, who called his late-game meltdown against the Lakers his worst stretch of an otherwise brilliant season.
"Deron told [Lopez] before we came to him, if you go up, go up strong; if you can dunk it try. He caught it in the post and made a strong move," revealed Johnson, who finished with 16 points as all five Nets starters finished in double figures in scoring. "That's what we expect out of our All-Star."
While Lopez will be the only Net on the Eastern Conference squad representing Brooklyn as an All-Star in Houston on Feb. 17. he's certainly not the team's lone go-to scorer in the clutch.
Johnson himself burned the Pistons (18-31) with a double-overtime game-winner at Barclays on Dec. 14 -- approximately two weeks before Avery Johnson was relieved of his coaching duties.
Lopez finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots, continuing his season-long reign as the NBA's most consistent and versatile center.
Williams, who added 12 points and nine assists despite six turnovers, became the 56th player in league history to reach 5,000 assists with his first-quarter feed to Gerald Wallace, paving the way toward a 14-point effort by the Nets' small forward.
Rebounding machine Reggie Evans posted his second double-double of the campaign with 10 points and 14 boards and veteran Keith Bogans led Brooklyn's "Bench Mob" with nine points off the pine.
The Nets' latest balanced effort boosted them within a half-game of Chicago for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. More importantly, it helped dilute some of the late-game pain administered by Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues just 24 hours earlier.
"It was kind of the polar opposite tonight," said Lopez.
The Nets are now 15-6 under Carlesimo, who replaced Avery Johnson in late December. They also improved to 5-7 in the second half of back-to-backs, giving them a lift as they prepare for Friday night's visit to struggling Washington (13-35), which stunned the Knicks (31-16) in D.C. on Wednesday.
"That's a good win," Carlesimo said. "Coming off a very disappointing loss, digging ourselves a hole and then not going south. We fought back and had a lot of guys contribute."
Trailing by four entering the final period, the Nets outscored the Pistons, 24-17, over the final 12 minutes, displaying the type of team defense and balanced scoring that has made them a legitimate postseason contender after five consecutive non-playoff campaigns to close their tenure in New Jersey.
With four games remaining before a much-needed break for All-Star festivities, the Nets would like nothing better than to continue chasing down the first-place Knicks while bolstering their playoff status, regardless of whom takes the big shot.
In other local sports news, Xaverian running back Laray Smith went from Clipper to Hoosier with one swipe of the pen Wednesday, officially inking a Letter of Intent to attend the University of Indiana in the fall.
The Staten Island native was projected by many as the second-best gridiron prospect in the entire city behind only Jefferson lineman Ebenezer Ogundeko, who will be taking his talents to Clemson in the fall.
Smith, who rushed for 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns over his final two seasons at the Bay Ridge school, is also a standout in track and field, making him a dual threat for IU.
Syracuse and UConn were also in the mix for Smith, who ultimately chose Indiana because of its compliance with his desire to play football as well as run track.
"It’s a place I can be comfortable and be involved in other sports," Smith said.
Hoop du Jour: With 5,000 assists in only 554 career games, Williams became the third-fastest active player to reach the milestone behind only former Net point guard Jason Kidd and Clippers playmaker Chris Paul. ... After visiting the Wizards on Friday, the Nets will try to avenge their most humbling loss of the Carlesimo era, a 104-73 drubbing in San Antonio on New Year's Eve, when they host the Spurs on Sunday. Brooklyn will visit Indiana on Monday and host Denver next Wednesday before taking five days off for the All-Star break. ... The Nets hadn't won in Detroit since 2006 before pulling out Wednesday's win.