By Steve Lichtenstein
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To all those who have already touted Jason Kidd for Eastern Conference Coach of the Month of January for piloting the Nets to 10 wins in their first 12 games in 2014, know this: He was clearly the second-best coach on the sidelines Monday night.
Kidd, who was hired by the Nets just 10 days after he retired as a player last summer, was a step behind Toronto’s Dwane Casey all night in a fairly significant game for this time of year, one that the Nets threw away in the final dozen seconds to lose 104-103 at the Barclays Center.
So instead of moving within a half-game of the first-place Raptors in the Atlantic Division, the Nets fell to 2.5 games back in the standings and to 1-2 in the series should a tiebreaker be necessary.
Now, Kidd certainly couldn’t put the ball in the basket for 7-foot center Kevin Garnett, who literally placed the ball on the rim with 1:22 to go when that gimme should have given the Nets a five-point lead.
Nor could Kidd have executed the two passes that point guard Deron Williams had picked off in the final 20 seconds when the Raptors were looking to foul. Williams hustled back to draw a charge on Toronto’s spectacular Kyle Lowry after the first one, but he wasn’t so lucky the next time. Patrick Patterson drained an uncontested 12-footer from the right side for the game-winner with six seconds left.
But let’s see what Kidd could have controlled, working in reverse chronological order.
After Patterson’s field goal, the Nets players appeared to be looking at Kidd to call a timeout. Except that the Nets had none left. The Nets had no idea what to do.
Finally, forward Paul Pierce inbounded the ball and took a return pass from Garnett while still only a few feet from the Nets’ baseline. Tick, tick. The 36-year old Pierce, who had a season-high 33 points a night after being feted with his buddy Garnett by their adorers in Boston in emotional tributes, barely could get past half-court before launching a prayer that was off target.
How did the Nets, a veteran group, not know their timeout situation? Did Kidd assume that the Nets would get the ball inbounded and get to the free throw line without preparing his club for contingencies? Was Kidd out of soda? Six seconds should have been enough time for the Nets to create a better shot.
The reason the Nets lacked that final timeout was because Kidd burned it following John Salmons’ layup with 12 seconds left. Funny, in the Dallas game on Friday, Kidd had the Nets inbound the ball quickly in similar situations before the defense could set up their denial schemes. And it worked, as the Nets made enough foul shots to hold on to win by one.
Afterwards, Kidd explained that he needed to call that timeout to get his better free throw shooters into the game. One of those was Williams.
Hmm, does that make sense? D-Will, who was needed to shoot free throws and is the team’s most elusive player (and the shortest), was inbounding the ball. Wouldn’t it have been better if they kept say, the taller Andrei Kirilenko in the game to make that pass with the quicker Williams as an available receiver? Whoever caught it would have been fouled immediately.
Which brings me to my next issue—why was Williams out of the game for defensive purposes in the first place? All game long, Kidd seemed to go to great lengths to avoid having Williams guard Lowry, even as Lowry was eating up Shaun Livingston, who just doesn’t have the requisite quickness. Williams, even with his balky ankles, looked to be the much better matchup in terms of staying with Lowry.
Casey did his homework and knew the Nets were starting a slow lineup with Williams on the bench out of superstition. Toronto exposed the Nets’ weaknesses, using Lowry to get the Raptors on top early in the first and third quarters.
Casey also knew which Nets could hurt him. He doubled Nets guard Joe Johnson at almost every opportunity, hounding him into a 3-for-10 shooting night. After Pierce’s third three-pointer of the fourth quarter, he sent extra men after him too. The Nets’ bench, which had been obliterating opponents this month, was held to 38 points, though the Raptors found Andray Blatche, who had 20 of those points, to be a handful.
On the other end, Casey had his Raptors playing 21st century ball. Through almost three full quarters, every Raptors point was scored from either behind the three-point line, in the paint, or at the foul line. Nothing from mid-range.
You can give the Raptors players the credit for executing the game plan, but that’s also good coaching.
Casey, who won the coaching honor in December, probably won’t repeat with a 9-6 record this month. Never mind that the Raptors were supposed to be tanking after trading high-scoring Rudy Gay to Sacramento on December 9 and played last night without leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, who sat with a sprained ankle. And he’s handed the Nets their only two defeats in 2014. It still won’t be good enough.
No, the Kidd turnaround makes for a better story. How the neophyte learned on the job and how his rotation adjustments turned the sour taste that was Brook Lopez’ season-ending injury into lemonade.
Look, I’ve been giving Kidd his due when warranted—he was proactive in configuring a rotation that worked and now he has his team defending hard almost every night. Kidd got highly-acclaimed stars like Garnett, Pierce and Williams to accept different roles. Brutal third quarters, caused by failures to account for opponents’ halftime adjustments, appear to be relegated to the past. And Kidd emphasizes sharing the ball, which makes the Nets the most interesting team to watch in the five boroughs.
But the solid month, much of which was accomplished against tired, hurting, or tanking teams, also masked serious flaws.
The starting five, though undefeated before tonight (Garnett rested in the loss at Toronto on January 11) has been getting outplayed the last few games. It’s one thing to believe your team is winning because you’re coaching without a tie; to ignore the discrepancy in the production between the starters and the bench is a problem. It was just a matter of time before a good team picked up on it.
Kidd also continues to be late calling timeouts when the whole building can see that the game has turned against the Nets. The best coaches, like Greg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau, will halt the action after maybe two or three low-quality possessions.
Casey was masterful in that respect, never letting last night’s game get out of hand when the Nets tried to seize the momentum. Kidd, meanwhile, preferred to wait and see if his players could work it out on the court themselves. Of course, all it accomplished was delaying the timeout for a higher deficit.
Then there’s the end-game madness, which hasn’t improved since the Nets almost blew their home opener against Miami. If the Nets have a lead in the last few minutes, they run every play as if it was the final play of a quarter, draining the shot clock until the last player with the ball flings one up towards the basket. On defense, the Nets turn into matadors, allowing unobstructed paths to the rim.
The Nets were fortunate that it didn’t come back to bite them against Dallas or Boston, but their luck ran out last night.
Yes, Williams and the rest of the Nets deserve a considerable share of the blame for last night’s incomprehensible defeat. All they had to do was inbound the basketball. But let’s not underestimate how Kidd’s strategic choices affected the outcome.
It comes out of the Nets’ faulty logic of having someone so inexperienced coaching a team with high postseason expectations. The Nets have a ton of talent—if they’re relatively healthy, they can be dangerous in the playoffs. However, a lot of those games are tight and they come down to which team is better prepared to execute in the fourth quarter.
Whether or not Kidd wins a Coach of the Month award, it won’t change his deficiency in coaching acumen compared to the teams the Nets will have to beat.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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