By Steve Lichtenstein
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With 4:33 remaining in the third quarter of the Nets’ 108-98 victory on Tuesday night over Western Conference cellar-dweller New Orleans, I did a double-take.
Nets forward Reggie Evans had just picked up his fourth foul when, lo and behold, backup CENTER Andray Blatche popped up off the bench to sub in.
I went all caps there because, for whatever reason, Nets coaches had avoided, as if it were some sort of jinx, doing what should have been obvious since way back in November, which is to pair the 6-foot-11 Blatche on the floor at the same time with starting center Brook Lopez.
Specifically, it was on November 18 when he poured in 22 points in 19 minutes at Sacramento on 11-of-12 shooting that had me on the Blatche bandwagon.
He was spectacular, and, with the Lakers and their big duo of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol up next, I figured that now the Nets had better weapons to match up with L.A.’s 7-footers.
Of course, then-coach Avery Johnson chose a different path. Blatche played just 11 minutes, scoring a mere four points as the Nets fell apart in the fourth quarter of a 95-90 loss.
For over three-quarters of the season, both Johnson and current interim coach P.J. Carlesimo have kept their thinking inside the box—Blatche’s minutes remained inversely related to Lopez’s health and performance.
Johnson, by Blatche’s account his biggest booster, even bypassed him for the smaller Gerald Wallace, a disastrous move during the Nets’ December swoon that led to Johnson’s dismissal.
This charade has been so ridiculous for so many reasons.
Blatche played plenty of forward while with the Wizards, enjoying his finest season in 2010-11 as center JaVale McGee’s wingman. Blatche possesses a diversity of offensive skills, with a surfeit of moves to create his own shot, both from mid-range and off drives to the rim.
Now compare that to what we’ve been seeing from the Nets who have manned the power forward position all season. The crowd groans when, at first Kris Humphries and now Reggie Evans, receive the ball in scoring position. Combined, they’re shooting a grotesque 44 percent, all on attempts from within 15 feet.
Simply put, it’s been a mystery why Blatche, the Nets’ fourth-leading scorer (10.1) and rebounder (5.2), has been averaging under 19 minutes a game.
Last night was the fifth game of the Mirza Teletovic experiment, with Humphries relegated to DNP status in favor of the bombing Bosnian. In these five games as Evans’ backup, Teletovic hasn’t exactly been lighting it up, averaging 1.8 points on 25 percent shooting.
Opponents continue to disrespect Teletovic’s ballhandling skills and, though he’s had a few strong rebounding games, it’s awfully difficult to pound the offensive glass when Teletovic positions himself some 25 feet from the hoop.
At the time of Carlesimo’s rotation-tightening announcement in which he pledged to find a recurring role for Teletovic, he also casually mentioned a desire to put Blatche and Lopez on the floor together.
Again, it was all talk.
Until last night, when Blatche (18 points, five rebounds and three assists) and Lopez (26 points, five rebounds and three blocks) shared the stage at the same time for their longest performance as a pairing, a 13-minute run that helped the Nets pull away after letting New Orleans tie the game late in the third quarter.
Now, this one short stretch was hardly dynamic, with the duo a mere plus-four. It will take more than one game against a lousy opponent at home to draw any conclusive assessment.
But I saw enough positives to believe that this lineup deserves to be a more significant component for the Nets as they embark on a season-defining eight-game road trip following Sunday’s home match versus Atlanta.
They didn’t get in each other’s way and, while Blatche could have done a better job contesting Lance Thomas’ jumpers, he didn’t kill the Nets on defense either. The variations the two can provide with a high-low offense are intriguing, with both players adept at scoring from either spot.
That should open up more opportunities for point guard Deron Williams, who continued his post-All Star break renaissance with a 21-point, 13-assist outing last night and, when he returns from his sore heel, shooting guard Joe Johnson.
The Nets have four days off before facing the Hawks, which should give Carlesimo and his staff the time they need to work out the specifics.
Better late than never.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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