By Steve Lichtenstein
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Just when you thought they couldn’t go any smaller…
The Nets have been one of the hottest teams in the league since they abdicated the traditional power forward position at the dawn of the New Year. It hasn’t mattered that they lost 2013 All Star center Brook Lopez for the season after he a broke a bone in his foot in late December. Or that Kevin Garnett, the team’s defensive backbone on the back line, has missed the last 13 games with back spasms.
No, the Nets were riding into Dallas on Sunday night on a three-game winning streak in a longer stretch of 10 wins in their last 12 games with long-time wingman Paul Pierce at the “four” and the combination of rookie Mason Plumlee and enigmatic Andray Blatche (plus Jason Collins during foul emergencies) at center.
So with the Mavericks holding a two-point lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter, what does coach Jason Kidd do against a team that had been killing the Nets on the boards all night?
He disavows his center, of course.
A lineup of Pierce, Alan Anderson, Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Deron Williams, none of whom stand taller than 6-foot-7, took the court with the Nets desperately needing a stop.
And, of course, they got it, when 7-foot Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki stubbornly launched his patented step-back jumper that for whatever reason had been off all game in lieu of of attacking Livingston in the paint.
Then, with the floor spread, Joe Cool converted on his running drive down the left lane to tie the game. It was Johnson’s seventh field goal without a miss over the last two seasons when the Nets were tied or within three points in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime.
However, the Mavs had one last shot to win in regulation. Kidd kept the same unit on the floor and exhaled when Monta Ellis settled for a long three-pointer that clanged off the rim.
Now, the Nets ran up an eight-point lead early in the overtime and hung on to win, 107-104, while going back to Plumlee, but Kidd’s high-risk maneuver in the fourth quarter spoke volumes about who the Nets are these days.
Brooklyn’s identity has gone from a plodding team that packs the paint to a more athletic one that actively seeks to create turnovers that often lead to easy baskets. Since the All Star break, the Nets have averaged 10.6 steals per game, the most in the league by almost one full steal.
The question that has been posed by many in the media is whether this transformation could have happened had Lopez stayed healthy. Nets general manager Billy King, who gave an update on Lopez’ condition on Friday night (Lopez also underwent surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left ankle after a successful operation on his right foot) wouldn’t touch that one. But I will.
And the answer is — of course not.
Even before the injuries, the lumbering Lopez was a disaster on defense. Have you ever seen Lopez trap high on the pick-and-roll to try to create a turnover? Or sprint down the floor like Plumlee on a fast break?
No, those aren’t part of Lopez’s skill set.
With Lopez out, these Nets have been forced to play a different style, one that has brought the Nets back from their 10-21 abyss to within a game-and-a-half of the Atlantic Division lead at 37-31. Plus they are infinitely more enjoyable to watch.
Many deserve credit. There’s King, who drafted Plumlee with the 22nd pick of the 2013 draft despite others on the board (like Tim Hardaway Jr.) who I felt would be a better fit. Actually, at the time I seethed because I felt that King, like Plumlee a Duke alum, was paying tribute to coach Mike Krzyzewski instead of choosing the best player available.
Plumlee arrived in Brooklyn with no discernible offensive game and no idea how to play defense in the NBA. Sure, he could wow you with some of his high-flying dunks, but I would have traded those for a few more rebounds per game.
Fortunately, according to King on Friday, Plumlee “accepts coaching. He doesn’t take it as criticism.”
One of those tutoring Plumlee has been Garnett, whom Plumlee said previews upcoming opposing players for him at shootarounds even though Garnett hasn’t dressed for a game since February 27. Plumlee has dramatically improved his play on the defensive end, though he still is prone to missing some assignments and failing to secure rebounds.
Equally important has been his ability to diversify his finishes around the basket. Before his rough 2-for-8 outing on Sunday in Dallas, Plumlee had been averaging 8.3 points per game on 68.5 percent shooting from the floor in just over 20 minutes per game in March. The impact is that he now has to be accounted for by opposing defenses, which provides more room for the Nets’ more accomplished weapons.
And then there’s Kidd, the neophyte who had Nets fans like me begging for King to search for coach number four in the last two seasons when he was predictably overmatched during his first two months on the job.
But there’s no question the Lopez injury gave Kidd the freedom to change the team’s identity for the better. One that reflects Kidd’s selfless image from when he was a player.
Furthermore, Kidd has managed his roster well to find the hot hands of the night while avoiding the common traps of playing time dust-ups that poison other locker rooms. It’s more difficult because Kidd never knows if he’s going to get, for instance, the good Marcus Thornton that scored 20 points in microwave fashion on Sunday or the evil Thornton who can just as easily misfire on a bunch of bad shots. The same goes for Blatche and Mirza Teletovic.
Finally, there’s game management. While it’s still a work-in-progress—Kidd’s misguided decisions leading to the Nets’ late-game collapses versus Toronto and Washington are still vivid in my head and I wish he could correct his general penchant for waiting too long before calling timeouts to try to forestall opponents’ runs–you can’t argue with his record.
And now Kidd, on his 41st birthday, just outwitted the Mavs’ Rick Carlisle, a championship coach, with the game on the line.
Maybe the Nets would have also stormed back on the comeback trail with Lopez in the lineup, but there’s no way they would have done it in this manner.
A discussion of Lopez’ future is for another time. As the preeminent scorer in the NBA at his position, he has value, provided at some point he shows he has recovered from this last-ditch surgery.
For now, Kidd has these Nets proving they don’t need anyone to be the center of attention.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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