By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Practice? You talkin' about practice?
Who knew that a hard one-hour workout, coupled with some harsh words from new head coach P.J. Carlesimo, would spur the Brooklyn Nets to their most significant win in over a month? Certainly not future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, who infamously downplayed the importance of between-game drills during a press conference for the ages more than a decade ago.
After posting a pair of much-needed home victories over Eastern Conference bottom-feeders Charlotte and Cleveland at the Barclays Center last weekend, the Carlesimo-led Nets suffered a humiliating 31-point loss in San Antonio on New Year's Eve to cap the "December to Forget" that ultimately cost Avery Johnson his job.
With a day off before taking on the league-leading defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn's new leader decided to push his players extra hard during a brief but effective practice Tuesday. The result: a 110-93 triumph over Kevin Durant and the Thunder before 18,203 fans at the Chesapeake Energy Center.
"We just had a good practice [Tuesday], and it kind of translated [Wednesday]," said Nets point guard Deron Williams, who finished with 19 points, 13 assists and five steals in arguably his best performance during an otherwise disappointing season running the Brooklyn offense. "This was a good win, any way you look at it. Especially after San Antonio. This is how we can play."
It was Carlesimo who called his team's third-quarter performance against the Spurs "unacceptable" moments before the clock struck midnight Monday following a brutal 104-73 defeat to the perennial NBA title contenders.
If the Nets decided to make greater resiliency in the face of adversity their New Year's resolution, it certainly showed Wednesday night.
Despite squandering a 23-point first-half lead, and getting outscored 27-15 in its latest third-quarter meltdown, Brooklyn battled back with a decisive 23-8 run after Oklahoma City forged an 85-85 tie to post its best win since topping Boston 95-83 on Nov. 28 under Johnson.
"We just needed this win, personally, especially after the game we had in San Antonio," noted Gerald Wallace, who returned from a bruised left knee that kept him out of the loss to the Spurs. "We needed this one to get back on track, kind of turn this road trip turned around and get some confidence that San Antonio loss took a lot of."
Shooting guard Joe Johnson, who scored a game-high 33 points on 11-of-19 shooting, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc, admitted that Carlesimo's fire during Tuesday's workout benefited the Nets against one of the league's most explosive units.
"We had a tough practice. P.J. jumped on us about a lot of things, especially defensively," he said. "To be honest, it helped translate to the game."
As dismayed as he sounded following the loss to the Spurs, Carlesimo was effusive in his praise of his team after knocking off the Thunder, who entered the contest with an intimidating 16-2 home record.
"The bounce back was incredible," Carlesimo gushed. "Deron ran the team unbelievably well and scored points and created stuff for other people. Gerald did as good a job as you can do (guarding Durant). Our bench gave us a great lift. You're not beating this team in this building unless a lot of people play well. We found a way to win, which is a great thing."
At 17-15, the Nets pulled within 4 1/2 games of the East River rival Knicks in the Atlantic Division race while remaining in the thick of the hunt for their first playoff appearance in six seasons. But Carlesimo, who has previously coached three NBA franchises over eight seasons without winning so much as a postseason series, knows that one strong performance won't make a difference for the Nets unless they find a way to repeat the feat on a nightly basis.
"We set the bar a little high. We showed ourselves what we're capable of doing," he said. "This game was really an excellent performance. There's not a guy that didn't contribute significantly to what we did tonight. But we have to do it for 48 minutes every night."
Brooklyn will get its chance to follow-up on the potential benchmark win when it visits league-worst Washington (4-26) on Friday night. After that, the Nets will host Sacramento on Saturday before taking a short trip to Philadelphia Tuesday night.
With a 3-1 ledger under Carlesimo, Brooklyn appears poised to continue climbing the Eastern Conference standings, where it currently ranks sixth overall.
But the premature air of over-optimism that surrounded the team following an 11-4 November is one the Nets will approach much more cautiously as the new year continues.
Especially with Carlesimo there to remind them that they're only as good as their last performance, or even their last practice.
"It's one game, but its' extremely important," Carlesimo said. "Now, we have to go out and try to do it again."
Hoop du Jour: Durant scored 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting against the Nets. But Wallace's persistent defense and overall hustle ultimately made for a rough night for Oklahoma City's star, who earned his first career ejection in the fourth quarter for disputing a technical call on teammate Kendrick Perkins during the Nets' game-winning fourth-quarter run. "He's gonna be one of the best guys to put on K.D.," noted Williams. "It helps our leadership [having him back], our defense and helps us all around." ... Carlesimo refused to play into the angle that the Nets were seeking revenge for him Wednesday night. Carlesimo coached the Thunder for the first 13 games of the 2008-09 season before being fired. "I think it's safe to say they've gone on and overcome whatever coaching they got from me,'' Carlesimo joked with reporters following the game. ... F Kris Humphries had 11 points and seven rebounds in 25 solid minutes off the bench against OKC. ... C Brook Lopez put up 25 points in just under 30 minutes against the Thunder and continues to lead the Nets with 18.6 ppg.