By Steve Lichtenstein
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Like many long-suffering Nets fans, I have a tendency to fixate on the negative. The franchise has had very little success since its entrance into the NBA in 1976. Failure is expected—the only mystery is how.
Coaches, GMs, players, the NBA conspiracy—they’ve all manifested at different points to keep us from experiencing the joy of a title.
It’s why certain players through the years have sent me over the edge through their incompetence. This season, Brooklyn swing man Keith Bogans has taken the mantle from such past luminaries as Jacque Vaughn, Antoine Wright and Travis Outlaw as the focal point of my venom.
Well, for once I’m going to turn the conversation around. Though this inaugural campaign in Brooklyn has been up and down, with the Nets unable to make the leap into elite territory despite owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s spending spree last summer, there’s been plenty to appreciate.
Sure, anyone can marvel at the brilliance of point guard Deron Williams (especially after his ankle treatments during the All Star break rejuvenated his game to prior levels ) or be lifted out of their seats following one of shooting guard Joe Johnson’s buzzer-beaters.
As the Nets prepare for the 76ers for an important contest on Tuesday in their battle for the fourth seed (and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs), Evans, an afterthought when he was dealt to the Nets from the Clippers for a second-round pick in the summer, has established himself as a vital cog in the lineup.
The Barclays Center faithful has started to be more vocal in their support, with the “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” chants evoking memories of a certain Yankees legend.
Yes, it’s easy to groan about all the things Evans doesn’t do well. He’s an awful free throw shooter (51.7 percent). Actually, he’s not too efficient from any spot on the floor, with a 50.7 percent conversion rate from in close, according to 82games.com.
I keep hearing he can’t jump, he can’t catch, he can’t do this and he can’t do that.
But what he does do well, he does better than anyone in the League. His rebounding rates are not just superb, they’re historical. Not since fashionista Dennis Rodman’s final glory years in Chicago, some 18 seasons ago, has an NBA player put up such numbers.
Evans’ 10.8 rebounds per game may only have him ranked sixth among the league leaders, but his 21.3 boards per 48 minutes are nearly three rebounds over his closest competitor, Houston’s Omar Asik. Only Minnesota’s Kevin Love (20.4 in 2010-11) has exceeded over 20 rebounds per 48 minutes over a season since Rodman.
Listed at 6-foot-8 and with limited ability to grab balls above the rim, Evans accomplishes these feats through pure will, hustle and muscle. It’s not uncommon for Evans to come away with the ball on the offensive glass surrounded by a pack of four opponents.
Or for Evans to chase a guard near the midcourt line defending on a pick-and-roll and then sprint back into the paint to help out on any potential missed shot. You don’t see that from other Nets, certainly not All Star center Brook Lopez, who is more likely to get caught in no man’s land in these situations.
Evans hit the 20-plus rebound mark for a League-high eighth time in last night’s 105-96 win over the dreadful Bobcats. Despite getting a tooth knocked out in the third quarter, Evans was at his whirling dervish best down the stretch. In two separate incidents, it was up to Evans to chase down loose balls by the sideline to ensure Brooklyn’s possession while Johnson and then Lopez looked on and deigned not to pursue. For good measure, Evans knocked down two free throws with 37 seconds left to help ice the game.
This was supposed to be Kris Humphries’ role. That’s why the Nets re-signed the free agent to a two-year $24 million deal over the summer, making him one of the top 50 highest earners in the League. Humphries had been a double-double magnet during the last two seasons in New Jersey.
But it’s one thing to put up numbers on a wretched team and another to produce when the spotlight is on, and Humphries has struggled to live up to his paycheck as soon as the moving van parked in Brooklyn. It’s come to the point where he is now useless until this coming offseason, when his large expiring contract actually becomes valuable to other teams.
It took the Nets nearly half the season to recognize that Evans was better. Ironically, Philadelphia served as the opponent that opened interim coach P.J. Carlesimo’s eyes in a January game.
Humphries had been on and off the active list with abdomen and ankle ailments and not at all effective when he did play. After former coach Avery Johnson’s failed experiment with small ball (which Carlesimo extended until New Year’s Eve), Evans took over as the full-time starter.
Starting with that game in Philly, where Evans grabbed in astounding 23 rebounds in 27 minutes while sitting out the entire fourth quarter of the Nets’ 109-89 victory, the Nets have gone 25-17. Evans has averaged 12.8 rebounds per game in that span (and 13.8 rpg since February 1).
Recently, Evans has also made improvements on the offensive end. Considered one of the most violent screeners in the game, Evans had few other functions despite often being left uncovered while the opponents sent extra men to double the Nets’ more potent weapons. When Evans received the ball underneath off a pass or missed shot, the fans crossed their fingers that Evans wouldn’t: a) fling the ball off the glass, b) get his shot stuffed, or c) get stripped.
Even a foul was no bargain, as fans felt there was a better chance that Phil Jackson would take over as the next Nets coach than there was that Evans would connect on both free throw attempts.
Yet Evans has been more driven lately, even looking to take on defenders from the post. In his last 15 games, he is averaging a more respectable 8.7 points per game.
I’m sure there were plenty of folks who did not stay up late when the Nets traveled to Portland two weeks ago and thought there was a misprint in the next morning’s box score. Surely the keyboard must have stuck or the agate man double-typed the ‘2” in the points column. How in the world did Evans manage to score 22 points?
Again, Evans is a player of superior will. At 32-years-old, he is the NBA’s ultimate survivor. He had to adapt.
Of course, Evans will be prone to games where he will be over-matched. There is a wide berth between the haves and the have-nots in the Eastern Conference, with the playoff contenders boasting such stars at the power forward position such as Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, David West, Carlos Boozer, and Al Horford. Evans is nowhere near that category.
Boozer in particular poses an imminent threat as the Bulls appear to be ensconced as the Nets’ first-round opponent and Boozer whupped Evans in their most recent encounter, a 92-90 Bulls win on Thursday.
But we know that when it counts, Evans will lay it all on the line, limitations be damned, for his team. It’s what makes him a fan (and this fan’s) favorite.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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