Nets

Lichtenstein: Even With KG Back, Nets Need Blatche To Step Up In Playoffs

Andray Blatche and Kevin Garnett (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Andray Blatche and Kevin Garnett (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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He’s a guard trapped in a big man’s body. He’s been filmed practicing his Euro-step along the streets of major cities. He is currently a bureaucratic step or two away from becoming a member of the Philippines men’s national team, even though he has no known connection to that country. He refers to himself as “Young Seymour,” because he believes NBA fans yearn to see more (get it?) of him.

For enigmatic Nets backup center Andray Blatche, however, it is up to Jason Kidd whether that nickname will be realized when the postseason begins in two weeks.

The front-line rotation may be the rookie coach’s most impactful decision he will have to make towards the Nets’ goal of advancing in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

You see, starting center Kevin Garnett and reserve forward Andrei Kirilenko returned from injuries this week. Both looked sharp in Saturday’s 105-101 victory in Philadelphia.

OK, so it was against the Sixers, who play defense like my son throws out the garbage–meaning occasionally and only after several pleas.

Still, just the sight and sound of Garnett taking charge in the paint on Sunday was a relief for all Nets fans. The 19-game absence due to back spasms did not seem to affect KG’s mid-range jump shots as he went 5-for-6 from the floor in 13 minutes.

The Nets’ rebounding, a weak link all season even prior to the season-ending injury to center Brook Lopez in late December, benefits from a healthy Garnett on the floor.

So if the Nets are able to get 20 (24, or–dare I dream–30) minutes out of KG’s 37-year old frame in the postseason, where does that leave Blatche, who will have to compete for the remaining scraps of playing time with rookie Mason Plumlee?

Or, for that matter, Mirza Teletovic, despite his ability to break open a game with three-point bombs. If the current standings hold and the Nets face the Bulls, I can’t see how Kidd in good conscience can allow Teletovic to again guard Chicago forward Taj Gibson, who torched him in prior meetings.

With Kirilenko now available to pick up the defensive slack up front and Kidd steadfast in his small-ball conviction, Blatche may still turn out to be a crucial component for Brooklyn given the variety of his offensive skills.

After all, this is a guy who can face up a defender from 20 feet away from the basket and either knock down a jump shot or drive to the rim utilizing fancy moves and pump fakes.

The operative word in that last paragraph is “can.”

As I tell the youth players I coach, just because you CAN make a shot, it doesn’t mean you SHOULD take it. There are these things called percentages. Taking too many low-percentage shots is the fastest way to getting blown out of any gym.

Sure, there are nights when everything Blatche throws up at the rim falls through. Maybe once or twice a month. The games where Blatche played within the system also yielded positive results.

Too many other games, unfortunately, tested Kidd’s patience.

For every behind-the back, between-the-legs, step-back jumper that he converts, Blatche is equally liable to stagnate the Nets’ offense with similar silliness on the next few possessions. I’ve read many a piece from those who cover the Nets where Blatche was referred to as a noun, verb and adjective all within the same article.

And then there’s Blatche’s defense, which also comes and goes as he pleases. He often forgets his assignments on pick-and-rolls and struggles to defend in the post. While Garnett leads all centers in defensive rebounding percentage, Blatche is in the bottom third of that category (Lopez is 62nd out of 63 eligible players, by the way).

The Wizards amnestied Blatche’s contract with $23 million owed to him after the 2011-12 season for many of the above reasons. Blatche was thankful that then-Nets coach Avery Johnson gave him a second life in the NBA by handing him a minimum deal (with the Wizards cutting a check for the difference).

It turned out to be a bargain for the Nets, who last summer re-upped Blatche for one more year at a low and subsidized rent, with a player option for 2014-15 (that probably won’t be exercised, as Blatche will likely test the free agent waters first for a longer-term contract).

For now, Blatche is a really wild wild-card on the Nets. Many I know would prefer that Kidd go with Plumlee in relief. Kidd may too, if Saturday’s substitution pattern in which he had Plumlee sub in for Garnett first is an indicator of his future plans.

It’s true that Plumlee has substantially exceeded expectations with his hustle and play above the rim. Plus, Plumlee actually played Bulls center Joakim Noah as well as anyone has in the Nets’ two years in the borough during their 96-80 victory a month ago.

However, Plumlee’s increasing foul rate and decreasing field goal percentage of late seemed to suggest that he was running into that infamous rookie wall. Maybe Saturday’s game, where Plumlee posted 16 points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes, was a sign of his second wind.

Or it could have been just a very good game against a very bad team.

In any event, Kidd has to look at the matchups carefully before making the call. If the Nets do indeed draw the Bulls in a first-round rematch, points will come at a premium. The Nets will need Blatche’s scoring on a second unit that, other than gunning guard Marcus Thornton on odd nights, might not have another viable go-to weapon. Even with his questionable shot selection, Blatche has the third-highest field goal percentage of any Net who has played at least 40 games this season at 47.6 percent.

Blatche’s presence will force whoever the Nets play to extend their defense, which in turn will give the Brooklyn guards more room to post up in their inverted offense. Plumlee doesn’t command that respect.

That’s why, if his head is on straight and he can exert the requisite energy on the defensive end, Young Seymour could be the key for those who want to see more of the Nets in subsequent playoff rounds.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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