By Steve Lichtenstein
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Back in the summer of 2007, the Boston Celtics made a trade in a brazen attempt to instantly change the culture of their franchise. It worked, as forward Kevin Garnett led the Celtics to an NBA title that season.READ MORE: 2nd Former Aide Accuses Gov. Andrew Cuomo Of Sexual Harassment, Governor Requests Independent Review
Fast forward six years later.
Nets general manager Billy King, frustrated by his club’s lack of toughness throughout a season that ended with a Game 7 loss at home in the first round of the playoffs, co-opted Boston’s idea.
Though Garnett will turn 38 years old in May, King mortgaged Brooklyn’s house three times over to acquire Garnett, plus fellow future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce and reserve guard Jason Terry, from Boston.
It’ll be months before we definitively know whether it was worth King’s ransom, but Sunday night’s game showed why he went to such lengths.
In as ugly a game as any the Nets have played all season, they managed to eke out an 85-79 victory in the trio’s first visit back to their former home, where Garnett and Pierce are still very much beloved. With all the distractions from Boston’s tributes, it took a lunch-pail defensive attitude for the Nets to win their 10th in their last 11 games since the infamous New Years Eve debacle in San Antonio.
That’s because neither gang could shoot straight in this game, with both teams converting under 40 percent of their attempts from the floor and 27 percent from three-point range. Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries—the offensive stiffs sent to Boston along with three future first round draft picks in exchange for the trio—outscored the more vaunted former Celtics, 18-15.
Fittingly though, Garnett made the key play of the game when he stepped into the passing lane to intercept Rajon Rondo’s flip and took off for a breakaway layup that gave Brooklyn an 82-77 lead with 17 seconds remaining.
The victory was further evidence that, since the turn of the calendar, the Nets have figured out how to win even when their shots aren’t falling.
And that’s something new in Brooklyn.
A lot of the credit goes to rookie coach Jason Kidd, who took hits in the media (including many from me) after the Nets’ nightmare 10-21 start but has since been proactive in changing the team’s course. He reassigned assistant coach Lawrence Frank when the players weren’t executing Frank’s defensive schemes and has settled on a rotation of 10 players capable of playing both ends.
No more trying to cover for center Brook Lopez, who was a scoring machine before breaking a bone in his foot but was horrendous on defense. No more Reggie Evans, a diligent defender and rebounder but had to be benched because his presence forced his teammates to score playing 4-on-5. And no more Mason Plumlee, the rookie center who has been lousy on both ends.
And, in Kidd’s most monumental move, he made Garnett the literal and figurative defensive centerpiece, even if it’s been limited to relatively short spurts.
Having Garnett at center has done wonders for the Nets’ defense. The points per possession metrics are off the charts with Garnett on the floor and he leads the league in defensive rebounding percentage.READ MORE: COVID Vaccine In New York: Mayor De Blasio Says NYC Is On Track To Vaccinate Half A Million New Yorkers Per Week
He is a renowned communicator, which has improved the Nets’ once-leaky pick-and-roll defense. Though not a spry as in his younger days, Garnett still protects the paint, with opponents shooting just 45.1 percent at the rim against him, according to NBA.com.
And last night wasn’t the first time that Garnett happened to be in the middle of significant end-game plays, whether it was a steal, deflection, or rebound that saved the Nets’ bacon.
Just as important, Garnett’s ethic seems to be finally rubbing off on backup center Andray Blatche. Blatche, who took a four-game sabbatical at the end of December for personal reasons, has returned with a different demeanor. He looks to be in better shape, allowing Kidd to get his minutes up to the upper 20s. Though he still possesses unique and diverse offensive skills for a big man, Blatche has toned down the more risky plays that have led to trouble in the past.
Blatche also seems to be more attentive on the defensive end. While he will never be in Garnett’s elite league, you can tell that Blatche has been listening just by watching how he now reacts to opponents’ offensive sets. He’s blocking/altering more shots while still being able to get back into rebounding position.
Lately, the Nets have been gaining significant ground on their opponents with their second unit. In the last five games, the Nets are a cumulative plus-47 points in the 131 minutes when Blatche has replaced Garnett.
That has been crucial for Kidd, who unfortunately has had to make concessions given Garnett’s advanced age. Garnett’s runs in any quarter rarely last longer than six minutes. He’s averaging a career-low 21.8 minutes per game and has already taken five rest days, only one of which was won by Brooklyn.
The Nets only loss in 2014, in fact, was the game Garnett missed in Toronto. The Raptors visit the Barclays Center tonight, where a Nets’ win would move them within a half game of first place in the Atlantic Division.
Both Garnett and Pierce looked emotionally spent after last night’s game, so their availability for tonight wouldn’t shock me either way, as the Nets then have three days off before hosting Oklahoma City.
The Nets with Garnett in the middle have evolved into a tough team to play against, which was King’s wish when he closed the blockbuster deal on draft night. To be fair, Humphries and Wallace were two Nets who always “got after it”, but neither had the gravitas that Garnett brings to the table.
It’s both tangible and intangible. It’s about creating a defensive identity that allows the Nets to endure even under adverse conditions.
There’s still a long way to go before the real season begins, but at least this year there’s a template in place that has a chance to succeed.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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