By Steve Lichtenstein
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On the day the Nets announced the successful results from the surgery of their All Star big man, they may have also settled on the medicine to cure their ailing season — going small.
Last night’s 89-82 Nets’ victory over Cleveland at the Barclays Center was their second in a row using a dual-point guard starting lineup featuring Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston.
Of course, it was helpful that Cleveland star point guard Kyrie Irving was absent last night due to a knee injury the game after the Nets stunned the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder.
Still, that seems to be life in the NBA these past couple of years, as top players around the country are more likely to be viewed by MRI technicians than hoops fans. Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose — the list of absent prominent talents makes this season a war of attrition.
Which is why the Nets were wasting their time grieving over the loss of center Brook Lopez to a season-ending foot injury back on December 20. The Nets lost four of their next five games, all by double digits.
Whether it was a stroke of genius or dumb luck, Nets coach Jason Kidd concocted a new look for his team as it entered the New Year, pairing his two point guards and moving Joe Johnson to small forward and Paul Pierce to power forward.
The Nets seem to be quicker defensively and giving Livingston the responsibility of spreading the wealth has freed up Williams to attack more aggressively. Williams, despite his obviously sore ankles, has responded with back-to-back 20-plus point outings.
The Nets were even hanging tough on the boards using the small lineup, at least until the second half last night, when the Nets surrendered 14 second-chance points on 10 offensive rebounds to allow the Cavs to overcome a 13-point halftime deficit.
Nets big man Kevin Garnett’s rest day had something to do with that as Reggie Evans, bless his heart, is best in very small doses. Evans started at center and had all 8 of his points and 6 of his 11 rebounds in his high-energy first quarter. In the third quarter, the Cavs adjusted by attacking the grounded Evans in the paint.
I still prefer Evans over rookie Mason Plumlee, who is highlight-worthy if he receives the ball inches from the rim but is otherwise useless. With Andray Blatche back in the rotation after a four-game sabbatical for “personal reasons” (reportedly related to his conditioning) to supply scoring off the bench, I’m hoping to see even less of both players.
But I, like most Nets fans, can’t get enough of Andrei Kirilenko. The Russian forward’s diverse skills had been missing for most of the season thanks to back spasms.
He’s up to around 15 minutes per game now, and he’s living up to his billing as a stat-compiler. Passing, rebounding, finishing at the rim—those are easy to record. But if you watch him closely—how he sees the court, how he cuts, the defensive activity—you can appreciate all the little things he does that many of his high-priced cohorts have disdained.
That’s what wins games, and the Nets need wins badly after blowing 21 of their first 31 contests. Fortunately, the Eastern Conference is so putrid that the Nets stand just two games out of the eighth playoff slot.
They’ll have another opportunity to feast on a wounded opponent when Atlanta, minus center Al Horford, visits Brooklyn on Monday, but then the schedule toughens. The Nets host hot-shooting Golden State on Wednesday and then end the week with a back-to-back, playing Miami at home on Friday and then travelling to Atlantic Division-leading Toronto on Saturday.
That will be a good test to see if this small-ball lineup is merely a gimmick or a coach-saving inspiration.
The irony of all this fuss over the starting lineup is that only Williams has seen any statistical rise in this small two-game sample. Johnson, outside of yet another humungously-clutch buzzer-beater in Oklahoma City, has been horrendous, misfiring on 13 of his other 17 shots. Pierce has been more aggressive taking on power forwards, but the resulting 37.5 percent accuracy and seven turnovers are not ideal. And Livingston, a notoriously poor jump shooter, has converted on just 4 of his 15 attempts while committing 6 turnovers.
It’s not like the Nets have come roaring out of the tunnel to generate big leads. In fact, the Nets have played their last two opponents to a cumulative dead heat if you just count the score during the first six minutes of the first and third quarters, when both teams’ starters are typically in the game.
It really has been the bench that provided the spark, with Alan Anderson and Kirilenko stepping up to turn the tide in Oklahoma City and the combination of Blatche, Kirilenko and Mirza Teletovic critical in holding off the Cavs until Johnson and Williams finished off the wins with late-game daggers.
But hey, if it ain’t broke…
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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