NEW YORK — With the home team trailing by 25 points after three quarters in Thursday night's game, Brooklyn Nets public address announcer David Diamante implored the home fans to rise to their feet and support the team.
The only thing missing from the fans' response was rotten tomatoes. Diamante's suggestion was soundly booed and the longtime boxing voice with the waist-length dreadlocks lowered himself back into his chair for the painful final quarter. The Nets were embarrassed again, this time by the rival New York Knicks, 113-83, and what was supposed to be a breakthrough season for the franchise continued in misery.
The Nets' neophyte coach, Jason Kidd, is fresh off paying a $50,000 fine for a Laurel and Hardy-type routine in which he asked his backup point guard to collide with him to spill a drink to delay the game because he lacked a timeout. Kidd also recently completed the uncomfortable demotion of his top assistant coach.
Brooklyn's star point guard, Deron Williams, has missed 10 of the last 11 games with a badly sprained ankle. One of the team's key offseason acquisitions, Andrei Kirilenko, is sidelined with back spasms and has no idea when he'll return.
In the midst of all this chaos are former Celtics Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry, who were acquired by general manager Billy King in a blockbuster trade in June to help the Nets make a championship run. But 14 losses in the first 19 games, eight of those by double figures, have caused misery among that trio.
Those close to the Nets intimate that Pierce has lost his passion, still stunned from his departure from Boston and the only team he ever knew, while Garnett is no better than a backup at this stage of his career. Pierce won't face the Celtics Tuesday night because of a fractured right hand and Terry remains out following offseason knee surgery, leaving Garnett on an island to determine the cause and the solution for the disastrous start.
While the Celtics allowed Garnett to go through his laborious postgame regimen of a deep massage and then get fully dressed before addressing the media, the Nets asked Garnett to speak just moments after another disheartening loss, seemingly the lone voice of reason.
During the demolition by the Knicks, Garnett was vastly outplayed by former Toronto Raptor Andrea Bargnani, who drew an ejection for trash talking Garnett following a jumper in his face. For years, Garnett was the vocal aggressor who backed up words with a smooth jumper. This season, he's shooting a career-low 37 percent from the field.
"There's a lot of moving parts in here," Garnett said. "We're working through them. We continue to show progress in practice. We've got to somehow transcend this over, carry over to what we do and what we talk about as far as schemes. We work on things with that game plan and teams are shooting the hell out of the ball."
The transition of 10-time All-Star guard Kidd to being a head coach was expected to go smoother than this. The amateurish move of asking Tyshawn Taylor to ram into him so he could spill his Coke on the floor to cause a delay in a Nov. 27 loss to the Lakers was embarrassing enough. Then last week came the stunning news that Kidd was removing former Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank from the bench after the two clashed philosophically and Frank began taking more control of practices.
Kidd, who has attempted to keep it together through these trying times, matter-of-factly discussed demoting his top assistant and his team's disappointing start.
"Surprised? No," he said. "When you look at injuries, basketball can be kind, it can be mean. We still believe we have enough talent to win. This season's been a great learning experience. It's not been difficult. You love winning every game but that's not possible. We're getting better."
In reality, the Nets entered Saturday 29th in the NBA in points allowed and 29th in point differential, meaning they are being beaten soundly every night.
Garnett, playing a career-low 22.5 minutes per game, is averaging just 6.5 points. But his rebounding numbers are similar to last season, meaning Garnett is not a focal point of the Nets' offense.
Pierce is shooting a career-worst 36.8 percent from the field in 15 games and has converted just 26.8 percent of his 3-pointers. Observers say Pierce is engaged at times and doesn't seem interested at others.
Pierce has not been available to the media since sustaining the hand injury. Garnett is trying to contain his frustration and keep his sanity. The Nets are not even approaching average. They are one of the league's worst teams, the most recent example having been lambasted by the struggling Knicks on national television.
"It's a process, man," Garnett said. "Everybody is in here trying to stay positive. We come in and we're trying to work as hard as we can. We got guys beat up. We're not a whole, period. The guys we have are trying to compete and fight and as you can see, it's not enough. But we're a fighting team and we're trying to do the right thing and come out and play together.
"Times when we do make lapses, don't play together, we expose ourselves. We have to understand our strength is in our numbers right now. But we're gonna come out of this, that's the only way to think. I'm not going to think anything else."
Some fans were calling for Kidd's job Thursday. Brooklyn's owner, Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, has invested an exorbitant amount of money in salaries and luxury taxes for the Nets to win this season. Prokhorov fired coach Avery Johnson after 28 games last season because the team was at .500 with a retooled roster.
With a 37-year-old Garnett, 36-year-old Pierce, and 32-year-old Joe Johnson, these Nets were assembled to win immediately.
"That's part of the job, you have to accept it, there are no excuses, you have to try to win," Kidd said when asked about his job security. "Whatever any owner decides to do, that's his decision. For us, to have guys ready to play, no matter who it is, injuries or no injuries, you have to have guys ready to play. Patience is something I've always had and I still do and I still believe the process will work itself out. As a whole, we still believe we can win and have a positive season."
Terry is a few weeks away from returning but carries the same optimism he did in Boston, when he swore until the final days the Celtics would compete for a championship. Terry has averaged 5.3 points in 11 games, shooting just 35.3 percent from the 3-point line.
"I'm very optimistic," he said. "We're going to be a great team, not a good team, a great team. We've just got to get healthy but we've got to continue to fight.
"Too many times, even when we did have our guys, teams made a run on us, we've dropped our heads and felt sorry for ourselves. Even at home, the fans start to boo and we feel sorry for ourselves. It's just basketball. Go out here like the kids you were when you were 15 and have fun, enjoy it, and enjoy whipping somebody's [expletive]. That's what it's going to take."
Terry tried to explain the early downfall, blaming health for the lack of chemistry.
"When you have this many injuries . . . I haven't seen anything like it," he said. "I experienced some of this last year with Boston towards the end of the season and we suffered the same type of lull in energy. You just don't have strength in numbers. Guys are logging heavier minutes. It's tough, but nobody said it was going to be easy. If it gets any worse than this, who knows? It can only get better."
After Thursday night's loss, Garnett had had enough of those questioning the team's desire and passion. Rarely does Garnett offer his analysis without being asked, but this time he did.
"Let me say something to y'all, we're playing, we have a lot of guys coming in asking a lot of them, new system, we're changing things on the fly," he said. "Jason's putting in a lot of new stuff since Lawrence has left and on top of that, guys' minutes, guys who are not usually playing a lot of minutes are having a lot of responsibility of playing big minutes and asking a lot of those minutes.
"We don't have Kirilenko, we don't have Paul, we don't have Deron, we just got Brook [Lopez] back. Chemistry just doesn't snap and wave the magic wand and say [voila]. Those things play a big part into this. I'm a firm believer, when we're whole and we have our team full throttle, that's what I believe in. Obviously, I believe in guys we put on the floor and we're going out there and giving an effort. But when you're playing teams, you want to play as a whole, and that's what I believe in and I'm not going to believe in anything else until we are whole."