By Steve Lichtenstein
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Maybe it was the ties after all.
The Nets’ 113-92 spanking in San Antonio on New Year’s Eve dropped their record to a brutal 10-21, prompting coach Jason Kidd to ditch his neckwear as the calendar turned.
The Nets were becoming the laughingstock of the league, a $190 million boondoggle without much hope for a brighter future. Something drastic needed to be done.
So Kidd’s ties, like former assistant coach Lawrence Frank, were banned from the arena on game days.
After holding on to beat Atlanta, 91-86, at Barclays Center on Monday night, the Nets are now 3-0 with Kidd in more corporate-casual duds.
Kidd’s attire has been all the rage in the media lately, parallel to notes about Joe Johnson’s historic efficiency in the clutch and updates on the health of the team’s core personnel.
Now, I get that kind of faulty logic from my kids all the time: A followed B, therefore B caused A. And I’m just as superstitious (or, to be more clinical, obsessive compulsive) when it comes to such rituals, always trying to replicate routines that preceded a Nets or Jets victory.
But I also know that, unless the ties were preventing the requisite oxygen from flowing to Kidd’s brain, there’s quite a bit more to this winning streak than his wardrobe choices.
The Nets again took advantage of a team missing a key component last night, as Hawks center Al Horford is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Previously, the Nets outlasted a Cavs’ club playing without star point guard Kyrie Irving and stunned Oklahoma City, minus All Star guard Russell Westbrook, on another Johnson buzzer-beater.
Of course, the Nets are the last team that should pity a hurting opponent with all the man games they’ve lost to injuries this season. Center Brook Lopez just underwent his fourth surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot, officially ending his season. Point guard Deron Williams, the Nets’ most irreplaceable part, sat out last night for the 12th time this season (not counting the two games when he had to exit early) when his chronically sore ankle experienced swelling.
My last post focused on Kidd’s solution to the Lopez loss, with the Nets changing their identity to become more of a small ball team. Paul Pierce, a natural small forward, has found life in his game going against bigger and less agile opponents.
With Williams’ injury preventing the Nets from starting a dual-point guard lineup, Kidd stuck to his guns by going with swingman Alan Anderson in lieu of a more traditional power forward.
Anderson was instrumental in turning the game around in the first five minutes of the third quarter, scoring 9 points to help Brooklyn build a 60-52 lead after trailing by six points at the break.
Kidd is also bearing the fruit of having a healthy Andrei Kirilenko around to make big plays after the Russian forward had missed 26 games with back spasms. Kirilenko again was a factor last night, with a stat line that included 8 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists in a season-high 21 minutes.
Kirilenko’s diverse skills are most infectious on the defensive end, where the Nets seemed to have picked up their energy and focus after two months of mostly lackluster efforts. Being smaller has allowed the Nets to be more comfortable switching off picks and, more importantly, not having the lumbering Lopez on the floor has resulted in fewer uncontested looks off opponents’ pick-and-roll plays.
During this streak, the Nets have held their opponents to 32 percent shooting from the floor in the fourth quarter while also forcing 15 turnovers.
And when the game got tight down the stretch last night, Kidd ran plays for perhaps the game’s best closer—Johnson. There should be no argument from anyone as to which of the Nets’ high-profile stars deserves the last shot.
Since Johnson’s ridiculous 37-point outburst versus Philadelphia last month, in which he drained 10-of-14 three-pointers, he has been in a long-range shooting slump. But even while misfiring on 29 of his next 36 attempts from behind the arc, Johnson still can deliver in the clutch using one-on-one moves to create space for sweet-looking mid-range jumpers.
Over the game’s final six-plus minutes last night, Johnson scored 9 points on 5 field goal attempts. Plus, Johnson made the game-clinching play by passing out of a double team to a wide-open Mirza Teletovic in the left corner. Teletovic’s fourth three-pointer of the night put the Nets up, 89-84, with 44 seconds remaining.
The fourth quarter was not without hair-pulling moments, such as when Kidd went a little too long with Reggie Evans in the middle. Evans displayed his usual spunk and, after a couple of mishaps immediately following his entry, worked to create a good number of extra possessions. But his effect has a relatively short life span and the Hawks eventually targeted Evans’ many limitations to take a one-point lead midway through the quarter.
In the end game, Kidd was too concentrated on Johnson isolation plays, resulting in a couple of stagnant possessions that threatened to turn the momentum. Kidd also still refuses to substitute for offense/defense purposes, with many wondering why Kirilenko was stuck on the bench while Teletovic gifted the Hawks five free points with defensive lapses. There were enough timeouts called where Kidd could have made some switches.
But if Kidd bore the brunt of my criticism for the Nets hellish start, it’s only fair to credit him for this latest uptick.
Not just his fashion sense.
Bigger challenges lie ahead, however, as the Nets next face three games in four nights, starting tomorrow night against hot-shooting Golden State at the Barclays Center.
Maybe if they lose that one, Kidd might look to shed another piece of clothing, like his jacket, in an attempt to start fresh for Friday’s matchup with Miami. If he chooses to go further, by season’s end the term streak could have a double meaning.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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