By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
When owner Mikhail Prokhorov vowed over the summer that he would bring an NBA championship to Brooklyn, I’m sure he wasn’t referring to the Global Games.
Prokhorov, who is spending approximately $190 million (including estimated luxury taxes) of his vast fortune to back up his boasts, was on hand to witness Brooklyn’s 127-110 thrashing of Atlanta in London on Thursday in what the NBA has dubbed the “Global Games.”
However, based on his remarks in a pregame press conference, Prokhorov seemed closer to coming to the realization that this title might be the only one his club will capture this season.
Still, Prokhorov cautioned, this is sports, so, in the immortal words of former major league pitcher Joaquin Andujar, “Youneverknow.”
In a season of unpredictable twists and turns, the Nets happen to be one of the hottest teams in the league right now after winning their sixth in seven games. They are finally scoffing at their injury list instead of bowing their heads in despair.
With All-Star center Brook Lopez out for the season and point guard Deron Williams sidelined for the last five games due to ankle woes, the Nets were expected to sink further in the Atlantic Division.
But rookie coach Jason Kidd, much maligned for the way he piloted Brooklyn to a 10-21 start, changed his wardrobe and his team’s identity at the start of the New Year.
All of a sudden, the Nets aren’t in such terrible shape. They’ve managed to squeeze into the eighth and final playoff spot in the putrid Eastern Conference and are only 3 1/2 games behind Toronto for the critical third seed.
Plus, in addition to possibly getting Williams back for Monday’s game at New York, the Nets, according to one statistical analysis, have the league’s second-easiest schedule (after the Raptors) remaining.
Of course, this is a team which has already lost to Cleveland, Orlando, Washington (twice), Sacramento, Charlotte, Minnesota, Detroit (twice), the Lakers, the Knicks, Chicago and Philadelphia—all of which are below .500.
So, again, youneverknow.
What we do know is that the Nets are playing a far different (i.e. better) brand of basketball under their new configuration, which slid Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson up one position number in the Nets’ “small” lineup.
The Nets’ offense is much more free-flowing, with Pierce and Johnson exploiting mismatches and Garnett rediscovering his mid-range stroke. Johnson is in the midst of a mini heat wave, as yesterday’s 29-point performance was his fourth 20-plus point game in his last five games.
The ball has been moving as Kidd had always envisioned– the Nets recorded assists on 38 of their 53 field goals yesterday. Even backup center Andray Blatche, who can be a ball-stopper, got into the act with six assists to go with his 20 points and 14 rebounds.
Even more impressively, the Nets’ defense has improved in nearly every meaningful metric since the calendar turned. For one game, at least, they finally prioritized defending the three-point line, holding the Hawks to 32 percent on 25 attempts. Atlanta swingman Kyle Korver, who entered the game with a record 107-game streak with at least one three pointer, missed his first eight attempts before draining one in, appropriately, garbage time.
The bench, with Blatche, Andrei Kirilenko and Mirza Teletovic, has been giving Kidd quality minutes so he can keep limits on aging stars Garnett and Pierce.
Even with this strong stretch, the Nets have a long way to go to prove they are capable of playing consistently on a level field with the league’s elite. Prokhorov called it “a procedure.” Thanks to their 2013 hole, there’s certainly less margin for error.
Prokhorov said that he stayed with Kidd through the nightmare start because he believes Kidd has the players’ support. That’s because all of Brooklyn’s injuries and rest days have given certain individuals opportunities that might not continue once Williams returns and if Kirilenko’s back holds up.
For the Nets to prolong this run, Kidd needs to be smart about who he has on the floor, even if it means alienating some who’ve played significant roles in this turnaround. For instance, he should still start the dual point guard tandem of Williams and Shaun Livingston, but he needs to have one of them on the court at all times to instead of going with either Alan Anderson or Jason Terry at the point for significant stretches.
Kidd should also stagger the rests for Johnson and Pierce, especially when it coincides with Williams’ break. He should limit the minutes Blatche and Teltovic play together as they are both weak on the defensive end. Kirilenko should get as much playing time as his body can stand while Mason Plumlee and Reggie Evans should never be involved when a game is on the line.
Finally, Kidd needs to coax even more out of Garnett.
Garnett, who recently suggested—maybe half-jokingly–that center is not his favorite position, is no mere role player. The Nets need his defense and rebounding and, since he’s in an efficient shooting rhythm, it’s nice to have someone to bail out the Nets when the shot clock is running down.
When the Nets are in the midst of a blowout, like yesterday, it’s ok to save Garnett for another day. But Garnett showed in the double-overtime win over the Heat last week how important he is in close games against quality teams. He averaged almost 30 minutes per game last season and then over 35 minutes per game during the Celtics’ six-game playoff loss to the Knicks. The Heat game was Garnett’s first time playing over 30 minutes in a Brooklyn uniform this season.
And don’t get me started on rest days.
Garnett has earned respect for all that he’s accomplished, but how could he look his teammates in the eye when he took the next night off in Toronto after the Heat game, especially when knowing the Nets had four days off afterwards? I mean, everyone had to be exhausted—Livingston, Johnson, and Pierce played 51, 46 and 44 minutes, respectively–but only Garnett received special treatment.
Thanks to this London trip, the Nets have 11 more sets of back-to-backs remaining on the schedule, with many as part of those hellish three-games-in-four-nights swings. How many of those will the Nets win if they have to start Plumlee or Evans in the middle? They couldn’t even beat the Sixers without Garnett, with the Nets getting pasted on the boards by an inferior front line.
Yes, the stars have to align, to quote Prokhorov, for the Nets to fulfill his championship dreams. Except that, based on the odds posted by those who compute such things, there are now many more of those disparate stars that need to coalesce than there were immediately after Prokhorov’s summer spending spree.
Prokhorov could have been talking about staying “all in” on a Nets’ NBA title or winning the New York Lottery.
In the end, we all really do know.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
You May Also Be Interested In These Stories