By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The tough losses are mounting, and the team's good on-paper statistics don't seem to weigh in when the Brooklyn Nets need them the most.
The $100 million point guard is still "not as comfortable" in the third-year coach's system as he was during his days as a perennial All-Star in Utah under legendary coach Jerry Sloane, and the third quarter has turned into a wasteland, where large leads turn into mind-numbing deficits for our borough's first pro sports franchise in 55 years.
Hello Brooklyn! And welcome to the glaring, and at times blinding, spotlight that accompanies being a big-market team with lofty expectations following a $300 million-plus summer spending spree.
"All losses hurt regardless of the situation of them, especially against teams we are supposed to be taking care of and winning," noted a frustrated Gerald Wallace after the Nets squandered a 13-point lead to the Jazz on Tuesday night before a crowd of 15,835 at Barclays Center.
The loss was Brooklyn's seventh in nine games after a blistering 11-4 start to their historic campaign.
"When we look back in March and April at these games, that’s when they really show up on the sheet," added Wallace, who missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer that nearly resulted in a tying putback by fellow forward Reggie Evans as time expired. "Losing hurts, period. At home or on the road. It doesn’t matter where we are."
Leading 57-44 at the half on Wallace's shot from beyond the arc, the Nets looked poised to emerge from their recent malaise just in time to take Madison Square Garden by storm Wednesday night in their first-ever visit to "The World's Most Famous Arena" since the well-chronicled franchise relocation.
But the season-long trend of coming out soft and unfocused in the the third quarter continued as Brooklyn was outscored 26-17 in the first 12 minutes after intermission.
Deron Williams, who finished with 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, was again miffed by the Nets' inability to put an opponent away after a strong first half. It was Williams' motivational halftime speech that helped Brooklyn escape Toronto with a win last Wednesday. That was followed by Friday night's double overtime home triumph against Detroit.
But a late-game collapse in Chicago on Saturday set the stage for Tuesday's third-quarter meltdown, killing any hopes of the Nets building on their modest two-game win streak.
"We need more of a sense of urgency.," insisted Williams, who made it clear following Saturday's one-point loss in Chicago that he was still struggling to find his groove in coach Avery Johnson's isolation-oriented offense. "We have to play well in the third quarter. We even emphasized that at halftime."
"We'll keep searching," added Johnson after his team slipped to 13-11. "Players have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. There's no time to stop the game, go work on it and come back out."
Shooting guard Joe Johnson scored a team-high 21 points, center Brook Lopez added 16 and Wallace finished with 11 for Brooklyn, which slipped to 8-6 at Barclays Center after winning seven of its first eight games at the state-of-the-art arena.
"I think we just need to come out more focused in the third quarter, especially the first five minutes," noted Lopez, who missed the first seven games of the Nets' ongoing slide with a mild foot sprain. "We can't get outworked like that. It's rough."
Now comes the daunting task of avenging last week's gutwrenching 100-97 home loss to their East River rivals, a defeat that went down extra hard after former Net great Jason Kidd supplied the game-winning 3-point dagger.
The Knicks, who own the Eastern Conference's best record at 18-6 -- five games ahead of the Nets for the Atlantic Division lead, could be without superstar Brooklyn-born forward Carmelo Anthony, who has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle.
Anthony, who lit up Brooklyn for a season-high 45 points in the last "Clash of the Boroughs", is eager to give the Knicks a 2-1 lead in the blossoming rivalry. The Nets took the opening meeting from New York via a 96-89 overtime victory on Nov. 26 at Barclays.
"Of course I want to play," Anthony said before revealing that he would be a game-time decision Wednesday. "But if I'm not able to go out there and be the player that I can be and help my team then I'm not going to step foot out there on the court."
Following head-scratching losses at Chicago and against Utah, Lopez believes the Knicks may provide just the elixir the Nets need to regain their focus before falling further back in the tightly packed early race for Eastern Conference playoff position.
"It's a good game for us to bounce back," said Lopez, who sat out last week's game against New York. "I don't think we're going to have to worry about energy at all."
In other Barclays-related sports news, the arena announced this week that it has signed a multi-year agreement to host the Big Apple Classic, the originally Historically Black Colleges and Universities basketball event, beginning in December 2013.
The annual showcase features the iconic southern basketball rivals, Howard University vs. Hampton University and Virginia State University vs. Virginia Union University.
“Hosting Big Apple Classic in Brooklyn presents a unique opportunity,” said Ken Johnson, CEO of Johnson, Inc. and Founder of Big Apple Classic. “Not only is Barclays Center state-of-the-art, but Brooklyn’s love of college basketball is evident as soon as you step foot in the building. The energy is unlike anywhere else.”
Off the Nets' herringbone-design court, Big Apple Classic will provide an exciting platform for BAC festivities, including a dynamic drumline exhibition, a college fair and educational symposium, and an unforgettable halftime show.
“We are proud to host a tournament that supports the strong tradition of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” said Brett Yormark, CEO of Barclays Center. “Our college basketball events this season have brought a lot of excitement and energy to Barclays Center and we are thrilled to add Big Apple Classic to our lineup for next season.”
Hoop du Jour: G Joe Johnson has hit 11 of his last 25 3-point attempts. ... F Kris Humphries, back in the startling lineup after coming off the bench behind F Evans for the past two weeks, ripped down 11 boards Tuesday for his first double-digit rebounding effort since Dec. 4. ... G Williams downplayed his perceived discomfort in coach Johnson's offense following Tuesday's loss. But his comments regarding his offensive struggles through the first quarter-plus of the season made the rounds earlier in the week. "I'm a system player. I love Coach Sloan's system. I loved the offense there," Williams said of his Utah days. "Is it as good [here] as there? No," he added. "There's just more one-on-one and isos [in Johnson's offense]." ... Following Wednesday's showdown at the Garden, the Nets will be home Sunday and Tuesday for big Atlantic Division tilts with Boston and Philadelphia, respectively.