By Steve Lichtenstein
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St. Patrick’s Day is the day when luck is cited ad nauseam. You know — luck of the Irish, leprechauns, etc.
During an NBA season, I get that teams need luck by the barrel to compete on a nightly basis. Luck with injuries, luck with the schedule, luck from discarding a necktie…
OK, that last one was more silly superstition than luck, as the Nets’ turnaround from a wretched 10-21 start has transpired due to more basketball-related strategic adjustments than coach Jason Kidd’s decision after New Year’s Eve to go corporate casual.
However, I submit to you that this Nets run, which reached 24-10 after Monday night’s 108-95 home win over Phoenix, has gone well beyond luck.
The Nets have actually become a very good team.
“We’ve all grown (through the season),” said Kidd. “We got new players, a new coaching staff here. It’s been a process. We probably didn’t get off to the start that we wanted, but we stayed together as a team. Those guys in that locker room have a lot of pride and character.”
Yes, the Nets have benefited from the return to health of key personnel such as Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko. Williams in particular has been masterful of late, pouring in 28 points on 11-for-13 shooting on Monday.
But let’s not forget that the Nets have been enjoying this stretch without the services of 2013 All-Star center Brook Lopez since a late-December foot injury knocked him out for the season. And they’ve played their last nine games minus defensive fulcrum Kevin Garnett. Kidd announced that Garnett’s back spasms won’t be re-evaluated until Saturday.
Despite those bad breaks, the Nets have thrived with rookie Mason Plumlee starting at center. After losing the opening tip, Plumlee significantly outplayed older brother Miles on Monday, posting a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds.
“I think Mason’s taken advantage of the situation,” said Kidd. “On both ends, he’s getting better. He uses his athletic ability. He’s not Brook, where we’re going to throw the ball into him and let him post up.”
Kidd continued, “But I think, with KG being out consistently and not in-and-out, guys understand their roles and we’ve gotten better than early on in the season when we were awful (when Garnett was out of the lineup).”
While the Suns were coming off a hard-fought win at Toronto the night before, they are a feisty team in a tight race for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Before the game, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said, “These guys (the Suns) have probably exceeded expectations. So far, in 66 games, we may have had three or four games where we didn’t really lay it all out there.”
Well, the Nets took it to Phoenix early and never let their lead slip into single digits in the second half. They frustrated their uber-quick guard tandem of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe with sound team defense while holding the normally sharp-shooting Suns to 27 percent from three-point distance.
The win ended an eight-day stretch where the Nets went an impressive 3-1 against playoff-caliber opponents, highlighted by the thrilling one-point win at Miami last week. If not for a late-game siesta at Washington on Saturday, it would have been a sweep.
Now the Nets in their final 17 games face just three teams over .500, with Charlotte, nipping at Brooklyn’s heels for the sixth seed in the East, up next on Wednesday at Barclays Center.
Though it will be difficult for the Nets to leapfrog Toronto–which owns a three-game cushion and tiebreaker advantages–for the Atlantic Division title, it’s more important that the Nets enter the playoffs with the confidence they can beat the teams in front of them in the standings.
They’ve found the formula–side-to-side ball movement to create and attack mismatches plus a similar-sized lineup at the 1-4 spots that can switch on the perimeter and force turnovers.
Leading the way on both ends is Williams, who has battled ankle woes since the 2012 Olympics. For the second year in a row, Williams was treated with platelet-rich plasma injections around the All-Star break.
“I’m definitely feeling better and more confident,” said Williams. “It’s kind of hard to play basketball with two sprained ankles.”
You can argue whether or not he’s worth the $98 million contract he signed two summers ago, but I still say Williams is the Nets’ most indispensable player. He can score, distribute, and stay in front of his opposing number.
And he can still dunk.
Or can he?
The Nets had a bit of fun at Williams’ expense after the game regarding his fourth-quarter jam, his first of the season.
“We’re trying to debate if that was a dunk,” said Kidd. “I have to go back and look at the tape.”
“I’m going to give it to him,” said Plumlee. “He’s gone up about three times now with great courage. This one rattled in, so he didn’t get the flush, but he got a dunk. There’s a difference.”
So maybe D-Will got a little lucky he was able to nestle that one through the hoop.
Who said you can’t be both lucky and good?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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