By Steve Lichtenstein
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From the look of P.J. Carlesimo as he sat for his postgame press conference last night, there was no way you could tell the Nets’ 113-106 home-court victory over Toronto upped his record as interim coach to 9-1 as opposed to 1-9.
With his head resting in his right hand, he looked troubled.
Except his conundrum was the same as if he had ordered too many scoops of ice cream.
Carlesimo said he was struggling with figuring out a way to manage the minutes of all his bigs. The latest flavor added to this confection is 27-year-old rookie forward Mirza Teletovic, a 6-foot-9 Bosnian with superior marksmanship from long range.
It was Teletovic who provided a much-needed jolt from Brooklyn’s first-half offensive slumber with 10 points, including three three-pointers, in the final six minutes.
But, far more impressively, Teletovic is also defending, rebounding and passing, allowing him to stay on the floor after his shots stopped falling. The game’s highlight was an out-of-nowhere Teletovic block of Raptors high-flying forward Terrence Ross’ layup that led to a gorgeous three-on-one fast break, finished by Andray Blatche’s dunk off a behind-the-back pass from Deron Williams that gave the Nets a 15-point lead with eight minutes remaining.
What a far cry from the player I watched a few months ago. In the preseason, I found Teletovic to be one of those proverbial chuckers, someone who threw the ball towards the basket as soon as it touched his fingers and did little else. Who would want to play with that guy?
Then Teletovic opened the season by getting abused physically (in the Minnesota game, he was repeatedly pushed aside as the Timberwolves ate up offensive boards to mount a comeback win) and mentally (in Miami, LeBron James audibly pointed out to teammate Shane Battier to “make him put it on the floor,” leading to a 1-for-8 performance). He was pretty much relegated to garbage time after that.
That is, until the Nets promoted Carlesimo to replace Avery Johnson three weeks ago. The record aside, Carlesimo is getting his highest marks for restoring the confidence of talented players like Teletovic and swingman MarShon Brooks, who were previously entrenched on the end of the Nets’ bench.
During this seven-game winning streak (of which he missed two with the flu), Teletovic is averaging 7.6 points per game in only 13 minutes, shooting 48 percent from the floor and 53% percent from three-point land.
Efficient three-point shooting has been the team’s missing ingredient all season, as the Nets are tied for 18th in the League in that category. The better-defending opponents on the upcoming schedule will be packing the paint against Brooklyn’s Big Three of Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. Teletovic might just prove to be the remedy.
Of course, when Teletovic plays, that means others don’t, which is why Carlesimo wore that pained expression when asked about his rotation.
The Nets re-signed Kris Humphries in the offseason to a two-year, $24 million deal, valuing him in the NBA’s top 40 in terms of his 2012-13 salary. As the presumptive starting power forward after averaging a double-double in the Nets’ last two seasons in New Jersey, Humphries has been in and out of the lineup due to an ankle injury the last month or so and really hasn’t been all that effective when he suited up. His numbers this year are down to seven points and seven boards per game.
The rebounding void (and starting role) has been picked up by offseason acquisition Reggie Evans, who leads the League in boards per 48 minutes by a comfortable margin. Evans has become a fan (at least this fan’s) favorite. He does all the little things—sets screens, blitzes the pick-and-roll while hustling back to recover and prevent layups, and wins a large share of those 50-50 balls to give the Nets extra possessions—that are crucial to a team’s success. Unfortunately, Evans’ offensive skills can be described as, well, offensive. He makes less than half his shots from close range and a little more than half of his free throws.
Which is why there is room for Teletovic in this mix. As long as he doesn’t neglect other aspects, he is perfect for the “instant offense” role off the bench, playing alongside Blatche, Brooks, C.J. Watson and, when Gerald Wallace returns from his bruised ribs, Keith Bogans.
And please stop with the talk of Wallace playing the power forward slot. Just because he can, it doesn’t mean he should. I remember Carlesimo telling reporters that he was going back-and-forth before the Philadelphia game last week over whether he should go small to have Wallace guard Thaddeus Young, but he was glad he started Evans.
You think? That was the game Evans grabbed 23 rebounds in three quarters as the Nets pounded the 76ers.
Let’s not go back to Johnson’s flawed vision of spreading the floor with swingmen as if the Nets have a superfluous roster of three-point shooters like the Knicks. That’s not who these Nets are.
The beauty of this run has been watching the Nets get back to playing the tough, physical brand of basketball, pounding the boards (Toronto was the first team to out-rebound the Nets in 2013) and getting to the free-throw line, that fueled their November success while at the same integrating pieces to make their attack more diversified.
That has to be the recipe as the Nets begin a five-game stretch of plus-.500 opponents Wednesday night in Atlanta.
And, contrary to what Carlesimo said, an effective Teletovic isn’t a problem—it has to be part of his solution.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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