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Nets Enjoying Tough Love From Avery Johnson

November 17, 2010

Avery Johnson has the Nets playing hard but it will be a long process. Nets believe in him so their time will come soon enough.

From Wall Street Journal:

Only 49 seconds had elapsed in the Nets’ Nov. 9 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers when coach Avery Johnson began hollering for a timeout.

As his bewildered players approached the bench, Mr. Johnson’s raspy, Louisianan inflection could be heard over the Prudential Center crowd. Brook Lopez, the team’s 22-year-old center and franchise cornerstone, had disobeyed a direct order from the man known as The Little General, and he was going to hear about it.

“I was explicitly told through shoot-around, through practice yesterday, before the game today, not to bite on [Cleveland center] Anderson Varejao’s pump fake,” Mr. Lopez said after the game, explaining the reason for Mr. Johnson’s tirade.

These not-so-friendly reminders are the price of playing for the Nets these days. They can be humbling, even verging on humiliating. Mr. Johnson spent one video session last week likening his team’s toughness to that of tissue paper. Afterward, Mr. Lopez confessed, “He was practically looking at me.” But the Nets players aren’t complaining about this brand of leadership—they’re craving it.

“You’ve got to trust him,” swingman Terrence Williams said of Mr. Johnson, who was the NBA Coach of the Year with Dallas in the 2005-06 season. “He’s not some guy that never coached in the NBA before and became the coach of the New Jersey Nets. It’s a coach that’s been around and everything that he says, I’m putting myself 100% into it.”

Trust is a funny thing in the NBA; players don’t automatically follow Xs and Os just because they’re written on a white board. Coaches have to prove they have their players’ interests at heart, even when dishing out criticism. Mr. Johnson has a talent for giving his players those gruesome details. And to their credit, the Nets have been listening.

“It’s very similar to parents,” said General Manager Billy King, who was hired less than a month after Mr. Johnson’s June hiring. “You may not want to hear what they have to say, but you realize it’s the right thing. I think that’s what Avery is doing with our guys. They understand that he’s looking out for what’s best for them.”

When his team suffered five consecutive losses, Mr. Johnson didn’t pull any punches. “I don’t like our mental and physical conditioning right now,” he said. “And we’ve got to improve in all areas. And I don’t know when the next time, you know, they’ll see an off day, because we need work.”

The next night, New Jersey snapped the skid with an eight-point win in Cleveland despite Mr. Lopez’s disappointing four-point effort.

With his center’s frustrations mounting, Mr. Johnson tapped into his own experiences as a player under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Sometimes your best offense can be your defense,” Mr. Johnson said. “I remember Popovich used to tell me, ‘Play defense, son. Just get some steals, guard your man.’ ” Mr. Johnson took it a step further by holding a one-on-one tape session with Mr. Lopez to pinpoint exactly what the center was doing wrong.

The results were immediate.

Mr. Lopez, who was mired in a 21-for-73 shooting slump, hit his first three field goals Saturday and finished with 23 points and two blocks as the Nets were edged, 91-90, by Orlando—the same Eastern Conference power that beat them by 15 points earlier in the week. Furthermore, Lopez held Magic center Dwight Howard to 16 points after yielding 30 points to the perennial All-Star in the Nov. 5 loss in Orlando.

Mr. Lopez had “a little carryover from our little individual, one-on-one video session yesterday,” Mr. Johnson said after the game. “I’m probably going to have to do that with him more often.”

The head coach wasn’t pleased with the loss to the Magic, but nobody could deny it was another step in the right direction. Since enduring that five-game losing streak, the Nets are 2-1, including Monday night’s win against the Clippers. That was the team’s first road victory against a Western Conference opponent since Jan. 24, 2009.

Mr. Johnson’s victories won’t all take place on the hardwood this season. Some are happening in the minds of his players every day. “Part of what I’m doing here is trying to change a mentality and change a losing spirit,” Mr. Johnson said.

“There’s going to be growing pains, but you know it’s clicked when it becomes habitual,” Mr. King said.

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