By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets are truly the diversity leaders of the NBA.
No, I’m not talking about Jason Collins. The Nets have had 10 different players this season score over 20 points in a game, tied for the second-most in the league. 11 different Nets have earned game-high scoring honors.
That’s not normal for a team with lofty aspirations. Take the Heat, Wednesday night’s opponent. No one outside of their Big Three — four-time MVP LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — has led the team in scoring in any game this season.
One way to look at the Nets’ variety of point-producers is to disparage the club’s inconsistency. You never know if 2014 All-Star Joe Johnson, or his high-priced backcourt mate Deron Williams, will score eight points or 28 points on a given night.
For Nets coach Jason Kidd, though, he prefers it this way.
Kidd doesn’t look at it like he can’t count on anyone to produce on a nightly basis — he sees a team that spreads the wealth, which is an extension of the way Kidd played the game until he retired after last season.
Wednesday night’s thrilling 96-95 victory in Miami saw the fifth different Net (Paul Pierce) lead the team in scoring (29 points) in their last six games.
Remarkably, Kidd had Pierce relaxing on the bench while the game went back-and-forth in the fourth quarter until there was just over four minutes remaining in the game.
According to Kidd, that was Pierce’s call. Kidd said that Pierce unselfishly sacrificed his minutes to extend reserve Mirza Teletovic’s time on the floor.
This is the same Teletovic who scored a grand total of 27 points in the Nets’ six March contests while shooting 4-for-18 (22 percent) from three-point range. His defense and rebounding were equally abysmal.
But whether it was that little scrum from their prior meeting in Brooklyn or the Heat lacking the bruising power forward that he finds difficult to handle, we saw a different Teletovic on Wednesday.
Teletovic poured in 17 points in 16 minutes on 6-for-11 shooting from the floor (including 3-for-5 from three-point land). More impressively was his work on the other end, where he accumulated four rebounds and three blocks.
Over two possessions in a 35-second sequence in the second quarter, Teletovic was matched up one-on-one with James. The normal reaction for a Nets fan would be to avert his eyes.
James didn’t even hit the rim on either shot attempt, the second of which was partially blocked by Teletovic in the paint.
That’s Kidd’s Nets in a nutshell. It’s a “next-man-up mentality,” and every game might yield a different hero.
Or, in a game like Wednesday’s, several heroes. Especially with the Nets facing the two-time defending champions without injured starting center Kevin Garnett and reserve forward Andrei Kirilenko, and on a night where Johnson and Williams combined to shoot 4-for-18 with eight turnovers.
There was Shaun Livingston, the bargain-basement point guard who posted a full load of stats — 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block. For the second consecutive game, Livingston’s Plastic-Man arms caused the steal that sealed the win. As Miami inbounded the ball with 3.5 seconds left, Livingston sneaked inside James at the left elbow to poke away the pass.
Backup center Andray Blatche also had one of his more solid games, contributing 11 points, four rebounds and three assists — all without killing the Nets on defense.
And then there was Pierce, who has taken over as the Nets’ spiritual leader ever since their 44-point debacle in Portland at the end of February.
Garnett’s back started flaring up shortly thereafter and the Nets were about to embark on a more difficult stretch of games, but Pierce has been a huge factor in the Nets not missing a beat.
A stinger in Pierce’s right shoulder/neck region? Just tape it up and go back to banging bigger bodies at a power-forward position the 16-year veteran just started playing after New Year’s Day.
Pierce said he was “locked in” all day getting ready to take on the Heat. He had a monster third quarter, scoring 17 points to help the Nets keep pace while the Heat regained its shooting touch following a rather ugly first half.
Late in the game, Pierce again rose to the occasion despite the lengthy respite. He immediately knocked down a three-pointer and, with less than two minutes remaining, he pump-faked from behind the three-point line and converted a contested layup off the drive to the hoop to give the Nets a 94-92 lead that they would not relinquish.
The Nets have now won seven of their last eight games to move into sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference ahead of Washington, Brooklyn’s next opponent on Saturday. Those victories haven’t all been on the backs of the meek, either. The Heat joined the Bulls, Grizzlies and Raptors in wondering what has come over these Nets. Their 10-21 start is looking more like an aberration every month.
When the Nets traded for Garnett and Pierce last summer, I wondered whether the Hall-of-Fame-bound duo could transform the Nets’ soft identity through osmosis. They were a team that featured one-on-one players who rarely got after it. Sure, they could count on center Brook Lopez to post nearly 20 points on the stat sheet every night before he was lost for the season in December with a broken bone in his foot. But something was still missing. Heaven forbid what would happen if Lopez struggled in any particular game. The offense was so bogged down in isolations that it was tough for anyone to get decent shots. Then their bodies would sag and the defense would give out free passes to the rim.
Now look at them. The Nets don’t have that consistent low-post scoring presence, but they are sharing the ball. They are at their best when their ball movement creates driving lanes from which they can use to pass to cutters or open spot-up shooters.
More importantly, the Nets have been playing maniacal defense lately, creating turnovers at ridiculous rates. (They’ve reached double-digit steal totals in seven of their last eight games.)
It’s all about the team concept, and Kidd deserves the credit for instilling it into his players and sticking with it even through difficult periods.
Here’s all you need to know about the new Nets: After Livingston’s deflection away from James, the ball bounced towards the baseline. If it had gone out of bounds, Miami would still have had a second or two to attempt to get off a potential game-winning shot.
It was Johnson — Joe Johnson! — who hustled to the ball and threw himself into the first row, knocking a referee to the floor in the process. Johnson was able to angle the ball back into Livingston’s hands, and the Nets had beaten the Heat for the third time in a row.
Kidd couldn’t have cared less that Johnson, with his 17.5 ppg career average, scored only eight points.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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