By Steve Lichtenstein
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I was all set to do a standard “Nets at the midpoint” piece. You know, how the team and its young players have grown over the first half, overcoming a multitude of injuries to take elite teams like the Celtics and Raptors down to the wire three times in the last 10 days. With Monday’s heartbreaking 114-113 overtime loss to Toronto at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn became the first team in five years to play five consecutive games decided by three or fewer points.
But then I scrapped it.
The more I thought about the Nets blowing another game they could have won, the more vitriol spewed in my head.
As in, why in the world is Tyler Zeller still starting at center when it hasn’t been working in weeks?
The Nets went down 18-6 in the game’s first 5:35 before Zeller was mercifully subbed out. Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas was dominating inside, scoring 10 points in the frame.
Zeller started the second half as well — I’m guessing more out of superstition than by merit. The results were a little less frightful, as the Nets were outscored by three points over a span of 5:20, with Valanciunas contributing seven points.
Was this Nets coach Kenny Atkinson’s best lineup to deal with the starters on the second-best team in the Eastern Conference? Of course not.
By any metric, the Nets have been at their best when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have been paired in the frontcourt. Atkinson knows this, since this is why the duo has been closing out most of these recent nailbiters. Atkinson went with them Monday to jump-start a Nets comeback from 10 points down with 4:40 remaining and all through a back-and-forth overtime.
Per NBA.com, Acy and Hollis-Jefferson have played 160 minutes together this season. That’s no longer a statistically small sample size. In those stretches, the Nets have outscored their opponents by 22.7 points per 100 possessions. The next best rating for a Nets duo that has played over 150 minutes together (and didn’t include the departed Trevor Booker, who was traded to Philadelphia in December)? That would be Acy and Allen Crabbe, with a net rating of plus-4.7 in 306 minutes.
Offensively, the Nets are off the charts with Acy and Hollis-Jefferson, scoring 124.8 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors and Rockets average about 114 points per 100 possessions.
There’s logic behind the numbers. Even though Acy is shooting a rather pedestrian 34.8 percent from 3-point territory this season, he is a threat and has to be guarded. In his last seven games, Acy has converted on 13 of 25 3-pointers (52 percent). This opens the floor for Hollis-Jefferson and others to drive downhill into a less-congested paint. The only time Spencer Dinwiddie gets his driving dunks is in this configuration.
Hollis-Jefferson is a far superior penetrator than Jarrett Allen or Zeller, which is why the Nets have less success when Acy is paired with either of those two limited rim-runners. Likewise, Hollis-Jefferson, who got used to having Brook Lopez stretching the floor next to him in his first two NBA seasons, isn’t nearly as good with other Nets bigs.
The only issue would appear to be defensively, when a pair of 6-foot-7 players might struggle protecting the paint and on the glass.
But the Nets seem to manage fine on that end as well, surrendering 102.1 points per 100 possessions, a far better efficiency than the team’s overall 106 defensive rating. The duo’s defensive rebounding percentage is 77.9 percent, a smidgen worse than the team’s overall 78.1 percent rate. What Acy and Hollis-Jefferson lack in size, they more than make it up in hustle and switchability. Atkinson even used Hollis-Jefferson to guard Raptors superstar wing DeMar DeRozan for several key possessions.
Now, I get that Acy is a lightning rod in Nets social media platforms. He’s never been a consistent performer in his five previous NBA stops in his five professional seasons. The Nets plucked him out of what is now known as the G League a year ago.
When Acy is not hitting his 3-pointers, he still launches them at every opportunity. When he fakes a shot against hard close-outs, bad things usually happen when he opts to dribble. He’d be better off passing and cutting hard to the basket instead of fumbling the ball out of bounds. Defensively, he can be overaggressive, leading to missed assignments in rotations.
If Nets general manager Sean Marks acquired the shooting big I begged for last offseason — Nikola Mirotic, not Otto Porter Jr., was at the top of my restricted free agent wish list — someone who could score from further out than 3 feet from the rim, then maybe we could have been spared many of Acy’s gaffes.
It doesn’t matter. This works, and the Nets, a team that takes pride in its analytics department, must see it.
“Let’s face it,” Atkinson said prior to the Nets victory over Orlando on New Year’s Day, “Quincy gives us a lot of space out there. He’s starting to play well, starting to make some shots. It’s a big boost to our offense. It helps our shooting, it helps us get downhill, and Quincy is a heck of a competitor. He’s helping all our lineups. That’s just a fact.”
After the loss to the Raptors, Atkinson said he only went to Acy and Hollis-Jefferson late because the Nets were down.
“Going small is about shooting at the end of the day,” Atkinson said. “When you’re down, you need more space, you need more shooting.”
Maybe it would be a good idea if the Nets didn’t get down in the first place.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1