By Steve Lichtenstein
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Oh, this piece would have been so easy to write had the Nets finished off what they started with four minutes remaining in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal in Toronto on Sunday.
Another blown double-digit lead to someone who has spent his last 40 years living and dying (mostly dying) rooting for the Nets and the Jets? Been there.
The Nets were flat-out gagging. Turnovers. Missed free throws. An inbounds disaster. Matador defense — ole!
So when Raptors guard Kyle Lowry lunged into a gaggle of Nets in the paint to put up a potential game-winning shot, I figured I’d need just a few minutes to polish off another “woe is this franchise” article before clicking the “send” button to my editor. I’ve seen this all so many times. I could have copied and pasted plenty of the stuff I wrote during the Nets’ first-round choke job against Chicago a year ago.
But Nets forward Paul Pierce literally changed the course of Nets’ history. His incredible blocked shot—without fouling!—allowed the Nets to escape with a 104-103 victory in the game and a 4-3 series win.
Brooklyn now advances to face Miami in Round 2, beginning on the road on Tuesday. After taking some time to get my heart rate back to where it should be, I’m ready to dig into how the Nets can unseat the two-time defending champions.
I agree that the Nets’ 4-0 regular-season sweep of the Heat is pretty much meaningless, as Miami has proven many times that they know how to turn it up numerous notches once the playoff bell rings. But not only will the Heat be a different team than the one the Nets last defeated four weeks ago, don’t discount how much Brooklyn grew up in this series with the Raptors, especially in its last two elimination games.
Here are four areas where the Nets have improved:
1. The KG Effect
So it took Nets coach Jason Kidd 87 games to realize that his team would benefit from having its best interior defender and rebounder on the floor for more than 20 minutes per game.
Nets center Kevin Garnett’s minutes inched up to 27 and 25 in the last two games, the most he has played since the end of January. It’s not a coincidence that these were the only games that the Nets out-rebounded the Raptors in the series.
Garnett also rendered Jonas Valanciunas a nonfactor, outscoring the up-and-coming Toronto center, 25-9, in that span. The 37-year-old Garnett has regained the efficient mid-range game he had before his back spasms cost him 19 games in March and early April.
The Nets figured to be better matched-up on the glass anyway against a Heat team that ranked at or near the bottom of every rebounding category the league charts, but having Garnett on the court for those extra minutes that used to be allocated to rookie Mason Plumlee can only be helpful to the Nets’ cause.
2. The Rotation
Got to give Kidd full props on this one—his decision to insert swingman Alan Anderson into the starting lineup was one of the turning points in the Toronto series.
I’m not sure if it was a mid-series stomach flu, but something was causing guard Shaun Livingston’s game to regress so much that it was making me hurl.
It just wasn’t working, as the Raptors knew exactly where they could lay off Livingston and his nonexistent perimeter shot so they could double Nets guard Joe Johnson.
Enter Anderson, who made the Raptors pay for their gambling by knocking down a corner three every so often while also looming as a threat to drive to the hoop. The added spacing seemed to rejuvenate the Nets’ starting-lineup offense while on the other end Anderson worked hard to force Toronto star DeMar DeRozan to make difficult shots.
Livingston was much more effective in a significantly smaller role leading the Bench Brigade in the last two games, scoring 16 points (including the two huge free throws with 13 seconds left that proved to be the margin of victory on Sunday) on 7-for-9 shooting.
Kidd is Mr. Superstition, so it wouldn’t shock me if he kept the rotation as is on Tuesday, although Livingston, with his length, was instrumental in the way the Nets defended LeBron James during the regular season.
What I don’t want to see is Kidd trying to buy chunks of time with Johnson, Pierce and Deron Williams off the court at the same time. It almost cost the Nets in Game 6, but they were fortunate that their 20-plus point second-half lead proved insurmountable.
Someone should flash Kidd a sign: Please keep an offensive facilitator on the floor at all times.
3. The Cure For The Road House Blues
Let’s face it: the Nets were an awful road team during the regular season.
It wasn’t just their 16-25 record—the worst among all NBA playoff teams save Atlanta. The Nets wilted at the slightest tinge of adversity when they were away from the Barclays Center. They were pounded on the boards. And for a team that relies so much on the three-point shot, they were in the bottom third of the league in road three-point percentage.
No way would I have expected the Nets to split four road games–including a Game 7–against the Raptors, who seemingly had the entire nation behind it. The building was deafening and it took all the Nets’ vast experience to play through what could best be described as curious whistles.
Think Miami will be any worse than that?
No, the Nets, led by Garnett and Pierce, will not be afraid of American Airlines Arena.
If anything, I’m more concerned about the Nets holding their serve at Barclays Center, where the fans have been rightly mocked for their late arrivals and split personality. If Raptors fans were somewhat audible in Round 1, the large contingent of local frontrunners could turn the Nets’ home into Miami North the way Bulls’ fans infringed on the Nets’ turf last year.
Fortunately, unlike last year, the Nets have a healthy…
4. Joe Jesus
I believe it was Garnett who gave Johnson the above nickname when he preached in January that Johnson “might not be there when you call him, but he’s there when you need him.”
The first round of the NBA playoffs featured so many outstanding performances, but I can make a strong case for Johnson as the early leader at the top of the MVP board.
Many choose to ridicule Johnson for things like his excessive salary, his poor performance in the 2013 playoffs due to painful plantar fasciitis, and his unwarranted 2014 All Star selection, but the Nets are having exit interviews today if it weren’t for his efforts versus the Raptors.
Johnson, who averaged just under 22 points per game in the series, was almost superhuman. He nearly willed the Nets on his own to an improbable victory from a 26-point second-half deficit in Game 5. With his bulk making mincemeat out of Toronto’s lean wing defenders, coach Dwane Casey threw everyone but Drake on Johnson in attempts to contain the beast.
Nothing worked. Whenever the Nets needed a bucket, the ball went to Johnson and Johnson went into attack mode. The Nets had great success when featuring Johnson in the middle of the floor, where he had options to drive or make an easier pass if a double team arrived.
As for his finishes, Johnson shot over 52 percent from the floor, many of them in the high-degree-of-difficulty category.
With Williams’ play in the clutch shaky at times, the Nets have always relied on Johnson to close games out. Johnson’s numbers in the final seconds of close games even eclipse James, the best player on the planet.
Now that we’re in the postseason and every possession matters, the Nets aren’t waiting until the end game to put the offense on Johnson’s back.
All these factors—the increased KG role, the better-spaced starting lineup, the road warrior mentality, and the postseason ascension of Joe Jesus as the Nets’ featured player—are recent developments and make this upcoming series fascinating.
I don’t buy that the Nets can’t win it. It certainly won’t be easy, unlike the Nets’ postmortem I had all configured in my head until Pierce extended the season.
What the heck—I’m picking the Nets in six.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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