Sunday was a great day for the NBA. J.R. Smith got his first taste of Linsanity in the New York Knicks’ 104-97 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook scored 91 points for the Oklahoma City Thunder in an overtime win against Denver. And the Miami Heat beat Orlando to stretch their record to an eye-popping 17-3 since January 17. Instead of watching these games, I decided to watch the 9-23 New Jersey Nets host the 12-18 Milwaukee Bucks in a hockey arena in Newark, New Jersey. The game, in which both teams combined to shoot 36.2 percent from the field and which Milwaukee won, 92-85, was as bleak as it sounds.
So why did I sit through it? Because I’m sick. I love the NBA, but sometimes I feel the need to test the limits of my devotion. So I put myself through trials like this — watching the most depressing game I can find, and believing that not even Shelden Williams and Beno Udrih can shake my love.
I saw the height of depression in the third quarter of Sunday’s game. Shaun Livingston beat Nets rookie MarShon Brooks with a move to the right baseline, jerked a little hesitation move to draw a bump from Brooks, then rose to bank in a 12-footer. The referee whistled Brooks for a foul. The play gave Milwaukee a 60-45 lead. As Livingston walked to the free throw line to shoot his bonus, the television camera caught Nets assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo. Carlesimo had watched the possession unfold with his chin propped between his thumb and forefinger. After Livingston’s basket, he dropped his head and held his brow. He looked like a man trying to muster the strength to carry on.
Earlier in the game, Deron Williams evaded a trio of Milwaukee defenders to penetrate into the center of the Bucks’ defense. He dribbled between his legs, immediately swung the ball behind his back, then caught it with a quick hesitation bounce to freeze the Milwaukee players around him. The Bucks’ big men stepped up to challenge Willams and he whipped a pass into an opening under the basket. His teammate, Shelden Williams, never slid into that gap. Shelden did, however, get a hand on the ball before it sailed out of bounds. The bungled assist didn’t matter, since Deron Williams was called for charging on the play. But after the whistle, Deron ripped out his mouth guard and grimaced as if a chunk of rotten goat had gotten stuck in his maw. He looked like a man desperate to escape.
Halfway through the NBA season, the outlook remains dark for the Nets. “I don’t want to go back to that place where I’m just depressed all the time,” Williams said last week. Things aren’t much better in Milwaukee. Bucks center Andrew Bogut has a broken ankle and may not return this season, and Stephen Jackson, their biggest addition to last season’s roster, appears to be on the cusp of mutiny. Jackson, who was suspended in late January and has been benched since then, is tending a mighty garden of discontent. Last week, when a Milwaukee TV reporter asked Jackson about his relationship with Bucks coach Scott Skiles, Captain Jack answered: “We don’t have no relationship like I’ve had with other coaches, and I don’t expect to have one. Too much stuff has happened.” Earlier this month, he also tweeted: “If u not a real fan of mine or if u dont make 9mil per yr. or have more than 500 followers. Dont tweet me.”
As the players circled midcourt for the tip-off, the Bucks’ Jon Leuer and the Nets’ Brook Lopez stepped to center circle. Ordinarily, a jump ball between soft, non-rebounding big men would be a perfect way to begin a game that shouldn’t be endured without the assistance of Vicodin. But it was a happy sight for the fans in Newark, because this was Lopez’s first game of the year after breaking a bone in his foot during the preseason. This meant several good things for the Nets. For starters, Lopez brings back his adequate post scoring and six rebounds per game. More important, though, as one of the Nets announcers pointed out before the game, Lopez “represents hope in a season of despair.” Hope that Lopez will play half-decent enough before the March 15 trade deadline to convince Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith to make a desperate trade for Dwight Howard, who may join another team in free agency after this season.
For the Nets — for any NBA franchise — Howard would change everything. It’s easy to imagine him and Deron Williams moving the Nets to Brooklyn next season and charming the pants off a borough that once produced basketball greats like Lenny Wilkens, Connie Hawkins, and Stephon Marbury, and that now produces artisanal pickles, keyboard jewelry, and bloggers. At least one Nets fan was feeling this spirit. He brought a homemade sign welcoming Lopez back and coining the term LOPEZANITY.
With Drew Gooden sidelined by a wrist injury, the Bucks rolled out one of the skinniest NBA starting fives I’ve seen in the past two decades: Brandon Jennings, Shaun Livingston, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, and Jon Leuer. Delfino, the only Milwaukee starter whose body has filled out, was looking like the Argentine DeJuan Blair.1
It wasn’t long before I began to worry that I may have set the bar for NBA devotion a little too high with Nets-Bucks. These are really depressing teams. I tried to liven things up by tweeting a bunch of screen shots — the grasping-for-something-positive Lopez sign, expressions of frustration and despair on the coaches’ faces — but the game itself was off to a hideous start. Deron Williams missed his first four shots, and nothing filled my heart with gloom like thinking of his plight, which is known in the area surrounding Jerry Sloan’s porch as “karma.” For a player who once seemed adept at breaking down a defense, reading his options, and then making a play that would give him or a teammate a good chance to score, Williams has landed in a special corner of basketball hell. With the Nets, his choices are to kick the ball out to DeShawn Stevenson, who understandably hasn’t changed the expression on his face since being nabbed for public drunkenness in the euphoric days following Dallas’ championship; run the pick-and-roll with Kris Humphries, who moves with the grace of a cartoon robot; or penetrate and dish to Shelden Williams, who has the hands of a man who lost seven fingers to frostbite. All this is to say that Deron Williams has no options, and that leads to a lot of 10-24 shooting nights like this one. If the ball is just going to bounce off of Shelden’s prosthesis, Deron might as well get a shot up, even if it’s a bad look.
The Nets and Bucks both have déjà vu players — guys who remind you of other guys in sad ways. For New Jersey, it’s Shelden Williams. He plays hard and grabs his fair share of rebounds, but he’s so often overmatched in skill and agility that he can’t finish routine shots around the rim and can’t get stops against quality big men. Sound familiar? Who ever said the Jason Collins era in Jersey had to end? Williams achieved something against the Bucks that I never knew was possible. Late in the fourth quarter, he had collected nine offensive rebounds but still hadn’t scored. He kicked the ball out for the Nets to reset their offense on about half of those rebounds, but he also missed a tip dunk and a handful of layups without drawing enough contact to get to the free throw line. More than any other Net, Shelden might be the reason the team’s front office will neither confirm nor deny that they confiscate Deron Williams’ shoelaces after each game.
The Bucks’ déjà vu guy is Shaun Livingston, who looks exactly like the once-promising L.A. Clippers guard Shaun Livingston, but on the court, after blowing out his knee, he’s so heartbreakingly different. And then there are just the lost causes like Brandon Jennings and MarShon Brooks, who run around really fast, appear out of nowhere to steal the ball, go on a hot streak of four incredible shots, and generally appear to have no clue when or what they should do to win basketball games. They’ve got just enough talent and skill that teams will keep signing them and hoping they put the pieces together, until all of a sudden eight years have passed and they’re John Salmons. Earlier this month, Jennings, who could become an unrestricted free agent in 2014, said he was “doing [his] homework on big-market teams.” How about the Brooklyn Nets? By 2014, Williams will be playing in Dallas, and the Nets might be desperate enough to roll the dice on young Brandon.
My attention started flagging somewhere near the end of the second quarter of Nets-Bucks. I was looking up pictures of NYC and NC State legend Julius Hodge, who now plays for the Saigon Heat, Vietnam’s first professional basketball team. But then, just as I was about to tune out, Petro time began. Johan Petro is the Nets’ backup center. I don’t know why I like him. He’s French, and he’s featured prominently on the community involvement page of the team’s website, where he poses in terrifying photographs with schoolchildren. He had a rebound, a turnover, and a very misguided face-up attempt at the elbow in his one minute and 46 seconds of play against the Bucks. I suppose I like guys like Petro and the Bucks’ Jon Brockman2 because it’s just rare that we get to see them do anything on a basketball court. Even if they hoist awkward jumpers and hold the ball like they aren’t sure what to do with it — they did both during the second quarter — I still enjoy watching the deep reserves get minutes. Plus, Brockman has a YouTube alter ego, the Brockness Monster, who shoots amazing trick shots and spouts the cryptic catchphrase “That’s how it’s done.” A Milwaukee sports bar also named a double cheeseburger with peanut butter and bacon “antlers” after him. These guys are all right.
In the second half, a story emerged. Ersan Ilyasova, a skeletal 6-foot-10 Turk who looks a little like James Franco, was having a career night, and ended with 29 points and 25 rebounds. His game was all elbows and effort, and against the Nets, who were legging out game two of a back-to-back-to-back, Ilyasova was overwhelming. He hit short corner jumpers, drove around Brook Lopez for a one-handed baseline dunk, and even drained a 3, but more than anything else he just pursued the ball with manic, Rodmanian intensity. And so the Nets, who on February 4 gave up 25 points to Jeremy Lin in the first chapter of the greatest story ever told, helped birth another meme, this one called “Ersanity.”
In the second half, Ilyasova tipped the ball to himself in traffic and seemingly wound up splayed on the floor on every other possession. The Nets announcers got riled up counting his rebound total, and Ilyasova ended the night with a dagger 3 that stretched Milwaukee’s lead to 10 points late in the fourth quarter. Somehow, these dreadful teams had turned it around. The Bucks, at least, seemed to be having some fun on the court. But there was one man who never cracked a smile, and he, of course, was Scott Skiles.
Did you know that Clint Eastwood has an NBA coaching tree? He does. It includes Scott Skiles and no one else. No matter what happens on the court, Skiles reacts with pursed lips and a steely-eyed squint. Like Eastwood’s grim-faced veteran in Gran Torino, he’ll say to Stephen Jackson: “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me.” But really, he’s just disappointed by the way the world has changed around him and left him and his values behind. He’s got love in his heart for all his players, even Jackson. They just need to abide by Skiles’ code. Ilyasova gets it. Luc Mbah a Moute gets it. Jon Leuer gets it. And that’s how Skiles, wherever he coaches, always ends up with a team like the Bucks — loads of moxie and light on talent.