By Steve Lichtenstein
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The last time the two basketball teams in New York City met on December 5, the struggling Knicks embarrassed the inept Nets by 30 points in front of a mostly blue-attired crowd at Barclays Center.
The Knicks, who had lost their previous nine games, improved to 4-13 and hoped the win would jump-start their ride up in the Atlantic Division standings. The Nets, meanwhile, dropped to an equally miserable 5-14.
Since then …well, the Knicks are still a mess.
The Nets, on the other hand, struggled through the end of the month but, since the dawn of the New Year, are unrecognizable from their 2013 version. Their 103-80 rout over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday was the Nets’ seventh win in their last eight games.
What has changed in Brooklyn?
Let’s see. So much has happened in the last month-and-a-half that you could point to, from the reassignment of assistant coach Lawrence Frank to the return to health of key personnel like forward Andrei Kirilenko to coach Jason Kidd’s institution of a “small-ball” starting lineup.
In my view, and I may be too soon to make this “I-told-you-so” call, this turnaround doesn’t occur if center Brook Lopez doesn’t break a bone in his foot in Philadelphia a month ago, thereby terminating his season.
Bill Simmons of Grantland.com likes to call this the “Ewing Theory” after the Knicks went on a run to the NBA Finals when their star center got injured during the 1999 playoffs. He invokes it every time a team digs down and actually plays better without its supposedly irreplaceable player.
Except in Brooklyn, there’s an explicit reason why the Lopez injury hasn’t been the precursor of doom many others expected.
Simply put, Lopez is a brutal defender. He may be the most efficient scorer at his position in the game, but his high production on offense doesn’t always compensate for the predicaments he puts his team in on the other end.
I’ve written ad nauseam how ineffective Lopez is at defending the pick-and-roll. As for rebounding, never mind how often he’s out of position from trying to help block every shot in the paint — he lacks the fire to get after balls when he boxes out.
For the next five games after Lopez’s injury, Kidd gave buckets of playing time at center to guys like rookie Mason Plumlee (great — a Lopez with an offensive game limited to dunks) and Reggie Evans (that show should have been canceled after last season) while starting overmatched Mirza Teletovic at power forward. That configuration yielded an average of 101.8 points in those five games.
Ah, but after the New Year’s Eve massacre in San Antonio, Kidd received some kind of inspiration, be it internal, divine or from an assistant coach unafraid of whispering in his ear after Frank was booted.
The so-called “small-ball” lineup — though no starting player is shorter than 6-foot-6 — has revamped the Nets’ defense. Since Kidd moved Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson up one position number, the Nets have held the opposition to an average of 92.5 points per game.
In that period, the Nets have played some high-octane teams. Oklahoma City, Golden State, Miami and Toronto are all in the top half of the NBA in offensive efficiency. Only Cleveland is in the bottom third of the league in that category.
But there’s no way this defensive revival happens with Lopez in the middle for, say, Garnett, who is every bit the leader on the back line that his billing claimed, even if it’s limited to small doses. Unlike Lopez, Garnett can defend the pick-and-roll without leaving the glass unprotected.
And Garnett’s ethic seems to be finally rubbing off on backup center Andray Blatche, who had one of his best all-around games as a Net on Monday with 19 points and 12 rebounds. The Nets surrendered just 20 points in the paint to the Knicks.
With that area well-patrolled, the Nets are even improving on what was recently the league’s worst defensive three-point shooting percentage ranking. In the game last month, the Knicks shredded the Nets by converting 16-of-27 three-point attempts (for a 59.3 shooting percentage). On Monday, they went 8-for-25 (32 percent).
Pierce, Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson are all so similarly sized that they can freely switch on screens, keeping them closer to long-distance shooters. Anderson, the shortest of the quintet, initially drew the Carmelo Anthony assignment and, with relief from Kirilenko and others swarming to help, made the Knicks’ star power forward work for his 26 points.
The defense wasn’t even disrupted by the return of star point guard Deron Williams, who had missed the Nets’ previous five games while receiving cortisone and platelet-rich plasma injections in his ankles. Williams was noticeably slow containing penetration in his 27 minutes, but thank goodness for Knicks counterpart Raymond Felton, who had another atrocious game against Brooklyn.
Williams said he volunteered to start Monday’s game on the bench — the superstitious Kidd most likely will continue that rotation on Tuesday night when the Nets host the Magic.
That will be another revenge game for the Nets, who were blown out in the season’s third game in Orlando. I remember that one, where the Nets were whole and Lopez scored 21 points but got pounded inside and on the boards by second-tier guys such as Nikola Vucevic, Jason Maxiell and Andrew Nicholson.
Assuming Garnett plays the second end of a back-to-back — thanks to the lopsided score, he only played 18 minutes on Monday and the Nets then have two days off) — comparisons with the Nets of that vintage are irrelevant.
These are the Nets we expected to see when they made all that fuss over the summer.
Even if it took a heartbreaking injury to their All-Star center to get them there.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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