By Steve Lichtenstein
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It wasn’t that long ago that Nets fans were checking out various witch doctors to find a cure for the voodoo curse that manifested at the start of nearly every third quarter.
No matter how well the Nets played in the first half, fans crossed their fingers and bit their nails to the bone for the next 12 minutes praying that the game wouldn’t take a dramatic turn for the worse.
Well, fellow fans, it appears the spell has been lifted.
Since the All-Star break, the Nets have outscored their eight opponents by an average of 5.5 points in third quarters. During their current four-game winning streak, which includes Wednesday’s 103-94 home victory over Memphis, the spread has been almost 10 points.
The Nets have been pretty good at the start of games as well, which isn’t a coincidence. Even with starting center Kevin Garnett out for the past three games with back spasms, their starting five defense has set the tone early in quarters.
The Nets raced out to a 21-2 lead in the first seven minutes of Wednesday’s game and pummeled Memphis with a 31-13 run in the third quarter to build a 30-point cushion.
Now, there’s a lot to be desired regarding the play from certain bench players (meaning you—Mirza Teletovic), who inexcusably gave the Grizzlies hope late in the second and fourth quarters, forcing Nets coach Jason Kidd to send some starters back into the game.
But with the Nets holding a winning record (30-29) for the first time all season after a nightmarish 10-21 start, I prefer to focus on the positive for a change.
Let’s start with rookie center Mason Plumlee, who has made giant strides on the defensive end as Garnett’s understudy. A game after harassing Chicago All-Star Joakim Noah into an off night, Plumlee held firm against Grizzlies Marc Gasol–another very tough cover—before foul trouble limited Plumlee’s time in the second half.
The Nets were 1-5 without Garnett in the lineup through the All-Star break. Even though Garnett was only playing about 20 minutes a game, the Nets needed his presence to anchor the defense and rebound.
To that point, Plumlee was playing defense like out-for-the-season Brook Lopez used to without contributing anything close to what the 2013 All-Star produced on offense.
However, Plumlee has been working with Garnett on positioning instead of relying solely on his athleticism to try to block every shot. As a result, Plumlee is rebounding at a much higher rate. Of the Grizzlies 16 offensive rebounds, only one occurred during Plumlee’s 12 minutes on the floor in the first and third quarters.
While the Nets continue to surrender offensive rebounds at an alarming rate, they are making up for it by forcing turnover numbers usually reserved for high school teams.
The Grizzlies didn’t match the 28 cough-ups by the Bulls on Monday, but their 21 turnovers generated an equivalent yield (29 Nets points on Wednesday versus 30 points on Monday) for Brooklyn. In the third quarter alone, the Nets took advantage of eight Memphis turnovers by scoring 11 points.
That usually happens when those turnovers are of the live-ball variety, meaning steals. The 14 steals the Nets racked up on Wednesday was the fourth straight game and fifth time in their last six games they reached double digits. The league average is around seven steals per game.
A lot of the credit should go to star point guard Deron Williams, who posted four of those steals. Williams’ chronic ankle woes–and his treatments–have been well-documented. Because this team is far less reliant on Williams’ scoring, his post-All-Star break point totals will likely trail those during a similar period last season following platelet-rich plasma injections.
But Williams’ perimeter defense has never been better. On Wednesday, Williams made Memphis guard Mike Conley look like a rookie. The ultra-quick Conley was 0-for-8 from the floor with six turnovers.
In the first three minutes of the third quarter, Williams made Conley pay for his three turnovers by nailing a three-pointer, setting up a fast break for Plumlee that was finished by Marcus Thornton, and then converting on a short runner in the lane.
Ironically, in his last three games, Williams has had more trouble with backups—Memphis’ Nick Calethes was the latest reserve to give Williams fits after Chicago’s D.J. Augustin and Milwaukee’s Ramon Sessions all had far superior games than respective starters Kirk Hinrich and Brandon Knight.
Still, the fact that Williams looks spry and confident can only mean good things for the Nets in the long run, which was what Kidd had been hoping for all along.
Kidd, who reiterated after the game that the only thing that matters is not their record but for the Nets to keep getting better through the end of the season, has also been better in making sure the Nets come out of the halftime break with both the right mindset and strategy.
Last season, neither Avery Johnson nor P.J. Carlesimo had the antidote for the Nets’ third-quarter ills. And the first 58 third quarters of the Kidd regime produced many moments where the players looked similarly bewildered and shaken during these momentum swings.
Not any more. Unless I just jinxed it.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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