By Steve Lichtenstein
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Entering the fourth quarter of Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal, Nets coach Jason Kidd tasked an unusual lineup with whittling away at Toronto’s 22-point lead.
That unit — starting guards Joe Johnson and Deron Williams plus reserves Mirza Teletovic, Alan Anderson and Andray Blatche — actually managed to tie the game up with a little more than three minutes to play. Kidd, however, took some flak for staying with that configuration for the remainder of the game, which the Nets eventually lost, 115-13.
Though Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the two future Hall of Famers brought to Brooklyn last summer specifically for the purpose of leading the Nets in the postseason, were glued to the bench in this pivotal match, I could at least understand Kidd’s thought process. He didn’t want to mess with chemistry.
Contrast that to the Nets’ scenario in Game 1 of the conference semifinals in Miami on Tuesday. The Nets were down, 79-66, after Williams’ three-point bank shot ended the third quarter. Most wouldn’t consider a 13-point deficit insurmountable, even on the road against the two-time defending champions.
So who does Kidd bring out for the fourth period? Shaun Livingston, Marcus Thornton, Andrei Kirilenko, Mason Plumlee and Teletovic. No Johnson, Williams, Pierce or Garnett — Kidd’s three primary offensive facilitators and defensive anchor.
The best that could be said about that group was that they somehow were able to tread water against Miami’s second unit for about four minutes. But when Heat center Chris Bosh and, shortly thereafter, star forward LeBron James checked back in, you would think that Kidd would retaliate with his main guys.
The result was hardly unforeseeable. Without anyone to initiate on offense and inexperienced paint protectors, the Nets succumbed to the Heat’s 22-12 run en route to losing the series opener, 106-87.
Oh, Garnett did play 1:16 somewhere in the middle of the fourth quarter, but I’m guessing Kidd felt it was wasteful on Garnett’s 37-year-old frame to have him out there in a 20-point game any longer.
Just don’t ask Garnett what Kidd was thinking.
“(Kidd) told me to go in for Mason,” Garnett said. “Then he told me to come out. Just following directions, dog. Just following directions.”
I don’t know which is worse: if Kidd actually thought he could come back with that lineup against an elite team playing at such a high level on Tuesday, or if he knew that he couldn’t and just threw in the towel.
Let’s tackle each of these theories one at a time.
In my series preview, I specifically warned the Nets about this recipe for disaster. The Nets like to (and need to) play at a slow pace. But who gets the ball when the shot clock runs down if Williams, Johnson and Pierce are mere spectators?
None of the available options should have inspired Kidd’s confidence. Livingston, Kirilenko and Plumlee can’t shoot from outside the paint while Teletovic and Thornton can shoot you out of games if they are forced to create their own shots. Anderson, who also saw significant time in the fourth quarter, is another player who is better as a fourth or fifth option than a primary one.
In that Toronto game, the Nets made their run on the back of Johnson, who went into beast mode with 28 points in the second half, with help from Williams, the distributor. The other guys were put in a position to succeed by playing off the two Nets stars.
The problem on Tuesday was that Kidd never allowed a go-to guy to see the court when the game was still somewhat in doubt.
The more likely (at least I think) motivation for this is that Kidd wanted to rest his veterans after a demanding seven-game series against Toronto that provided only one day of rest.
Johnson averaged 41 minutes per game against Toronto, including a 45-minute workout in Game 7. Garnett played 27 and 25 minutes over the last two games, the most he has run in almost three months. And Williams needed more cortisone injections to relieve pain in his chronically-sore ankles after a Game 6 tweaking.
Still, Kidd is playing a dangerous game. It’s one thing to throw away games in the regular season. Many teams, including Miami, rest their regulars from time to time to have them healthy for the games that matter.
Except that these are the games that matter.
Why give Miami any momentum? Any advantage, however slight, the Nets thought they had by sweeping the Heat in four regular-season games went out the window when Kidd deigned not to go all in to make a fourth-quarter run on Tuesday. Maybe if the Nets got close, some doubt would have leaked into the Heat’s collective mindset and the Nets could have found themselves in a position to steal one. Instead, it’s the Nets who will feel some pressure to take Game 2 on Thursday to get the road win they need to threaten the Heat’s reign.
Who knows? Maybe the Heat were too strong — they dominated the paint all game, not just in the fourth quarter — and would have won Game 1 anyway.
That doesn’t excuse Kidd for not playing the guys who gave the Nets their best chance to dethrone the King and his court.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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