By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The season-high seven-game winning streak and perfect start to 2013 the Nets had built came burning down in Atlanta on Wednesday night.
Brooklyn interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, who has guided the resurgent Nets to a 9-2 mark since taking over for Avery Johnson in late December, cited fatigue, as well as the Hawks' urgency to bounce back from a humiliating loss, as the main factors in his team's first poor performance of the new year.
"We're flat-out exhausted," Carlesimo admitted, moments after the Nets trailed from the start and never seriously challenged in a 109-95 loss before 15,029 fans at Philips Arena. "They ran it down our throats the entire game."
Nets shooting guard Joe Johnson, a six-time NBA All-Star during seven seasons in Atlanta before being traded to Brooklyn, had an unhappy homecoming, managing 15 points on a dismal 4-of-15 performance from the floor. Backcourt mate Deron Williams was limited to 12 points while misfiring on all but five of his 18 attempts.
Center Brook Lopez put up 22 points and nine rebounds for the second straight game, but the Nets, playing for the eighth time in 14 days just one night after grinding out a tough victory over Toronto at the Barclays Center, couldn't muster the type of effort that has helped them climb back into the thick of the Atlantic Division race during Carlesimo's tenure.
''They outplayed us in pretty much all the aspects of the game,'' Carlesimo noted as Brooklyn dropped two games behind first-place East River rival New York in the division race, pending the outcome of the Knicks' game against Detroit in London on Thursday.
Atlanta was coming off a day of rest following Monday night's nightmarish 97-58 drubbing in Chicago, and was without the services of leading scorer Josh Smith, who was suspended for the dreaded "conduct detrimental to the team."
Jeff Teague picked up the slack for Smith, scoring a career-high 28 points to go with 11 assists for the Hawks, who will be in Brooklyn on Friday night for the back end of the home-and-home set.
''They were a very, very good team tonight without Josh,'' Carlesimo said. ''You've got to think they're going to be a better team when they add a player of his caliber on Friday.''
The Nets (23-16) will try to avoid their first back-to-back losses during the Carlesimo era, and give themselves a chance to head into Madison Square Garden on Martin Luther King Day with an opportunity to move even closer to the Knicks in what is suddenly shaping up as a very competitive race for first place.
Johnson, a staple of Atlanta's recent playoff teams, drew boos throughout the contest, especially during player introductions.
"I would think it's not going to be an easy situation, especially when Joe played here as long as he did," Carlesimo predicted prior to the opening tip.
Some good news did emerge from the Nets' first loss since a New Year's Eve defeat in San Antonio as forward Gerald Wallace, out two games with bruised ribs following a nasty fall at Barclays Center in last Friday's win over Indiana, returned to action. Wallace managed four points and two rebounds with a steal in 15 minutes off the bench, and could return to the starting lineup when Carlesimo deems him ready for more minutes.
Lopez, likely to be named an All-Star Game reserve for the Eastern Conference later this month, hit 10-of-14 shots while backup Andray Blatche again provided strong minutes with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting. But the Nets were outrebounded, 41-37, and went a frightening 4-of-26 from 3-point range.
The Nets will try to extend their home winning streak to seven games Friday night, with an eye on gearing up for their third meeting of the season with the Knicks, who will have to shake off some jet lag when they return from London.
"I expect a different Net team Friday night," insisted Johnson. "Besides the game, it was great to come back to Atlanta and see some of the guys. It just didn't seem like we were in tune [Wednesday night]. This is our job, and there's no excuse. We'll get back to the drawing board and bounce back on Friday."
With the NHL lockout over, Brooklyn hockey fans can finally start focusing on supporting their soon-to-be team from Long Island.
The Islanders, slated to arrive at Barclays Center for the 2015-16 season -- unless they can get out of their Nassau Coliseum lease a bit sooner, will kick off the abbreviated 48-game NHL campaign Saturday night at defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey.
Though they've finished last in the Atlantic Division in each of the previous five seasons and haven't qualified for the playoffs since 2007 -- Sound familiar Nets fans? -- the Isles are looking forward not only to expanding their fan base in the future, but putting together a winning product sooner than later.
'It's up to us to get off to a good start,'' oft-injured, high-priced New York goaltender Rick DiPietro told the Associated Press during the team's one-week training camp. ''Adrenaline is going to be flowing.''
Budding young stars like John Tavares and Matt Moulson could soon be as recognizable to Brooklyn sports fans as Deron Williams and Brook Lopez have become during their first few months on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
But for now, the Isles will have to focus on arriving in our fair borough as a legitimate postseason contender, rather than the cellar dwellers they've been for the past half-decade.
''Every team is optimistic,'' noted Tavares, who led the team with 50 assists, 86 points and ranked second behind Moulson with 31 goals last season. ''I think it's trying to be consistent. It's critical for us to be sharp.''
Hoop du Jour: Former Net Devin Harris, one of the players who went to Utah in the blockbuster deal for Williams in 2011, now plays for the Hawks. The 6-foot-3 guard burned his former teammates for 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting Wednesday night. ... Hawks F Smith is averaging 28 points in his last two games against the Nets. ... Williams' 12-point effort Wednesday was his lowest offensive output since an eight-point night against San Antonio on New Year's Eve. ... The Nets haven't dropped back-to-back games since consecutive losses to Boston and Milwaukee from Dec. 25-26 -- their final two contests under coach Avery Johnson.