By Steve Lichtenstein
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Chalk one up for Jason Kidd.
The Nets’ embattled rookie coach may have stumbled onto it, but I’ll give Kidd the benefit of the doubt after all the criticism heaped upon him the last few weeks.
Now the hope is that Kidd will stay the course and keep Paul Pierce out of the starting lineup.
Pierce, the forward acquired by Brooklyn along with fellow future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett in a blockbuster draft day trade with Boston, returned to active duty on Tuesday after missing four games with a microfracture in his right hand. The notoriously tough Pierce was supposed to be out another week or two, but he scoffed at that prognosis, taking the court with only a protective glove to prevent further damage.
It was up to Kidd to convince Pierce that the Nets would be best served with him coming off the bench—at least initially.
After watching the Nets in these last two games, including Thursday night’s 102-93 home victory over the Clippers, I believe this should be a permanent change.
Much has been written about the precipitous decline in Garnett’s game, but the talk about Pierce has been in more hushed tones.
It’s really not a secret—Pierce, even before the injury, has not looked like anything close to the player who carried the Celtics for most of his 15 years there. The spryness is gone—he can’t get by defenders or keep his man in front of him, rotate to contest shooters, and he doesn’t have the legs to convert all those long-range daggers that used to haunt fans throughout the metropolitan area.
But his guile and instincts can still be useful. As long as it’s in a reserve role.
Pierce rebounds, controls the tempo and gets his teammates the ball in scoring position. He still can draw fouls and get to the line with the best of them. Last night, he even hit on a couple of three-pointers in scoring 10 points in 26 minutes, though he clanked his other five attempts from the field. We should expect his shooting efficiency to improve when his hand heals enough that he can shed the glove.
Playing mostly against second units, Pierce won’t be forced to guard for long stretches all the elite small forwards in the league. In Tuesday’s win over the Celtics, I’m sure it was much easier for Pierce to contain Gerald Wallace than Jeff Green.
Those key assignments can be handled by Alan Anderson, the last player signed by Brooklyn general manager Billy King in a whirlwind summer. Anderson is a capable on-ball defender, as evidenced by one sequence last night when he switched onto Clippers guard Chris Paul, who pulled out several of his dribbling tricks but could not shake free. Anderson has to work on not cheating too much to help in the paint and leaving the three-point shot unguarded, but it seems that continues to be a team-wide problem left over from the Lawrence Frank error.
And it’s not as noticeable if possessions go by where Anderson doesn’t get touches, even though he’s not an offensive dead end the way, say, Keith Bogans was last year in a similar role.
It certainly isn’t as awkward as when Pierce shares the court with Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. All four of those players need the ball in their hands to be effective, but the ball can’t be split into quarters.
Earlier in the season, the Nets tried to turn Pierce into a catch-and-shoot specialist and the results were disturbing. Pierce was shooting just 27.8 percent from three-point distance prior to his injury.
At first, Pierce joked that his misfirings were due to his not being used to being so wide open. But, in a similar way that the Nets tried to no avail to re-make Wallace last season into a stand-still bomber, this structure does not play to Pierce’s strengths.
Pierce is a facilitator, a player who thrives when he has options with the ball in the middle of the court as opposed to standing in the corner and waiting for the ball to come his way.
That can’t happen while playing with the starters. The Nets’ offense has been revived with the returns of Lopez and Williams from ankle injuries. Lopez has been a scoring beast in the post while D-Will has picked his spots appropriately to take over in his two games back (Both tweaked their ankles again last night, with Lopez’ the more serious issue—he will travel to Detroit for tonight’s game but his playing status is questionable). Meanwhile the Nets also need to feed Johnson a few isolation plays every so often as well.
On the second unit, Pierce is more of a focal point. He’s a far better option running pick-and-rolls over backup point guard Shaun Livingston since Livingston won’t ever shoot coming around the screen. Pierce has also worked well with big man Andray Blatche, who was huge for the Nets last night in scoring 21 points in 27 minutes.
It’s been only a two-game sample, but so far the returns have been positive on Pierce’s switch to coming off the bench. It’s up to Kidd to convince Pierce that there’s no shame in it so it can continue.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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