By Steve Lichtenstein
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OK, they were facing the Sixers, a team with an apparent mission to tank these games for extra ping pong balls in the upcoming draft lottery and playing without their top player.
But there was definitely something different in Brooklyn last night in the Nets’ easy-breezy 130-94 victory.
You see, the Nets were also missing their leading offensive weapon in center Brook Lopez. In the games Lopez had missed previously because of a pair of sprains to his left ankle, the Nets had gone 1-7.
Last night, however, Nets coach Jason Kidd threw everyone a curve when he started second-year forward Mirza Teletovic for the first time this season. Andray Blatche went back to his sixth-man role while Kevin Garnett switched over to center.
As a result, the Nets started four high-efficiency three-point shooters surrounding Garnett, who has made a large living knocking down mid-range shots.
Welcome to the 21st century NBA.
We didn’t see much of the grind-it-out isolation ball that sometimes made the Nets difficult to watch even with Lopez’s prolific scoring. No inverted offense, which caused poor spacing and allowed opponents to run out for layup drills on the other end.
Instead, there were lots of pick-and-rolls run by point guard Deron Williams, who piled up 13 assists and inspired others to share the ball looking for the best shot. The floor was spread with three-point weapons Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson, Williams and Teletovic ready to fire away.
The Sixers’ only chance in this game, even with stellar rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams inactive, was to run the aging Nets out of the gym.
They couldn’t do it because they were too busy taking the ball out of the net. The Nets hit a team-record 21 three-point shots while shooting a gaudy 60 percent from behind the arc.
“The ball was moving,” said Kidd. “There were a lot of guys touching the ball. Guys were making plays for one another. When the ball is moving with that group out there, someone’s going to get a wide-open shot. We got some great looks and finally started knocking down some shots.”
Johnson, despite battling an illness, was the primary beneficiary of this new spacing, gorging the Sixers with sublime shooting. In his three quarters of work, Johnson put up 37 points on 13-for-20 shooting, including 10-for-14 from deep.
Most of those (except for maybe his last one when Johnson was knocked into the Sixers’ bench with 28 seconds left in the quarter for a four-point play that shook the Barclays Center) were uncontested, as the Sixers couldn’t keep up with the Nets rapid ball movement.
The offense was especially proficient for most of the first and third quarters. What chemistry issues? This new five-man unit (including when Blatche subbed in for Garnett after the obligatory five-or-six-minute mark) scored at will.
“We just found the open man,” said Anderson. “You just don’t want to get content shooting a lot of threes—we tried to penetrate and tried to get the defense moving side-to-side.”
Johnson was in heat-check mode virtually the entire third quarter, scoring 29 points. That’s just four points shy of the most ever, folks. His 8 three-pointers in a quarter tied an NBA record.
Of course, we know the Sixers’ dreadful three-point defense deserves some share of the credit. But don’t completely discount the Teletovic factor either. He finished with just 11 points in 26 minutes while connecting on only two of his six three-point attempts, but his presence forced the Sixers to account for him on the perimeter, which opened lanes for others.
There’s a large section of Nets fans (though that itself is a tiny segment of the population, even in Brooklyn) that feels Teletovic has gotten a raw deal since he came overseas as a free agent before last season. Much of his time here has been spent waiting for opportunities, with his minutes mostly coming in garbage time.
Teletovic hasn’t helped matters by playing inconsistently in his few chances to shine, including this preseason.
In the last two games, however, including his torrid fourth quarter in Detroit on Friday, Teletovic has played complete games–making the extra pass, cutting to the basket–not just standing at the three-point line and launching shots as soon as the ball hits his hands.
“He’s done great,” said Kidd of Teletovic. “When we’ve called his number, he’s responded. He rebounded the ball and he gave us an offensive weapon of being able to stretch the defense.”
Teletovic found out he would be a starter pending Lopez’s status during a breakfast conversation with Kidd yesterday morning.
“I appreciate that Jason told me that if you work hard, he’s going to give you the opportunity,” said Teletovic. “I always try to fill the spot where we need it—forward, power forward, center—wherever we need it, I play it.”
Now, this was likely a one-game aberration, as Lopez will likely return to his deserved role on Wednesday against Washington.
But that should in no way mean the end of the road for Teltovic. Kidd can’t keep leaving this bullet in his holster. I mean, he’s got to be better than rookie Mason Plumlee–can we agree on that?
I still have no idea what Plumlee brings to the table. He’s as bad a rebounder as Lopez and has no offensive role if he’s not directly next to the basket. Not that the statistic is a tell-all, but Plumlee somehow was a minus-two in 22 minutes on the court of a 36-point win last night.
Kidd’s bigger dilemma is what happens when Andrei Kirilenko gets medical clearance after missing the last 18 games with back spasms. Kirilenko may not be in Teletovic’s league as a shooter, but he’s a stat-accumulator and would likely be the Nets’ top defender. Kirilenko told the media that he is hoping to return around Christmas.
There’s no easy answer, as Kidd is bound to make one or more of his players very unhappy.
Well, here’s a hint for Kidd—take a peek at the team leaders in three-point shooting percentage. You’ll find most of the top teams there. Only the Thunder and the Clippers have won consistently while in the bottom third of this category while the top 10 teams are all at least .500 with the exception of the Lakers.
The Nets, who have won four of five to move to 9-15, still have a long way to go to make up for their disastrous start. A more recurring role for Teletovic will help them climb their way out.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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