By Steve Lichtenstein
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In my two years covering the Brooklyn Nets, I’ve learned that there are few honors more meaningless than Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.
Avery Johnson took home the award for coaching the Nets in November 2012, only to take home a pink slip a month later.
Now we have Jason Kidd, who became the Nets’ first two-time winner in one season after leading his club to a 12-4 March.
Does that dual distinction catapult Kidd, who entered the profession a mere 10 days after retiring as a player last summer, into the elite coaching stratosphere occupied by the likes of Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau?
If Wednesday’s dreadful 110-81 drubbing at the hands of the rival Knicks at Madison Square Garden showed us anything, it’s that Kidd has much to learn no matter his record in any particular month. Kidd himself has stated that he shouldn’t be graded until after the season is complete.
Unfortunately, the Nets’ performance on Wednesday might have shortened that timeline.
This was a game the Nets had to have. With the loss, the Nets (40-34) fell 2.5 games behind Toronto and Chicago, both of whom won on Wednesday to solidify their holds on the third and fourth seeds in the East.
That’s fairly significant to a team that hasn’t exactly earned a reputation as road warriors. While the Nets are riding a 14-game winning streak (as part of a 21-2 run since the Christmas Massacre) at Barclays Center, their record away from Brooklyn dropped to 14-23.
Since both Toronto and Chicago enjoy tiebreaker advantages over Brooklyn, the Nets really have to make up three games in their last eight matches. If you take a look at those two teams’ remaining schedules, I’m sure you’ll conclude that they are less than imposing.
So in this contest of vital importance to the Nets’ chances of gaining home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, they laid a dud, playing like they were out partying all through Tuesday night after clinching a postseason berth with a win over Houston.
The Nets have been brutal all season on second legs of back-to-backs, especially on the road, but this was flat-out ugly. Brooklyn allowed the Knicks to shoot 60 percent from the floor while failing to take advantage of what has been a very generous Knicks’ defense virtually all season.
“They made shots,” was Kidd’s explanation as to what went wrong with the Nets’ defense. Yes, but the best coaches at least stop games before they get out of hand and make adjustments on the fly, two areas where Kidd is still at the bottom of the NBA coaching curve.
Kidd prefers to wait for TV breaks to save his timeouts for end-game situations. He was doing this even before the infamous soda drop against the Lakers in mid-November.
But this strategy cost him again on Wednesday as the Knicks poured it on at the start of the second quarter. During an extended 44-19 run (45-19 if you count the technical foul called on Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson at the end of the first half that Knicks star Carmelo Anthony converted before the third quarter began), Kidd called exactly one timeout, that after Anthony rocked the house with a breakaway slam dunk to give New York a 20-point lead with 3:31 left in the half.
In the past, Kidd explained that his penchant for letting his guys play through rough periods was because he “trusts them”.
Wait–Tim Duncan and Tony Parker haven’t accomplished enough during their tenures on the Spurs for Popovich to trust them? That’s why he routinely calls timeouts after only a couple of deviant possessions on either side of the ball?
I watched Toronto’s Dwayne Casey use multiple timeouts in the first half to halt play in a game last month that easily could have been a Brooklyn blowout. I bet it wasn’t because he didn’t trust Kyle Lowry. It’s just what good coaches do to attempt to restore order.
The Nets did make a run in the middle of the third quarter to cut the Knicks lead to 74-60 with two minutes to go. As bad as the Nets were playing, that wasn’t an insurmountable deficit.
But the Knicks made a key adjustment out of a timeout. With big men Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire on the bench with four fouls apiece, Knicks coach Mike Woodson was playing Anthony at center in a very small lineup, something Kidd had done for short periods last week.
This time, however, Kidd had center Mason Plumlee on the floor. Plumlee looked like he had no idea who to guard.
“We were just trying to talk through it,” said a still-confused Plumlee after the game. “It wasn’t a normal lineup. I was on (guard Iman) Shumpert for a little bit, then I was on (guard Pablo) Prigioni but when that happens you just got to talk. We had an advantage on the offensive end too so maybe we (should have taken) better advantage of that inside.”
In any event, eight straight Knicks points later the game was over. Kidd then rested his starters for Friday’s tilt with Detroit at Barclays Center.
Look, I’ve given Kidd credit for his outside-the-box thinking in solving the Nets’ identity crisis after their horrid 10-21 2013 by starting the New Year with a smaller lineup featuring Paul Pierce at power forward and dual point guards in Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston. He and his staff are also responsible for things like developing Plumlee into a serviceable role player so that the long-term injuries to Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko haven’t been devastating. Kidd has instilled confidence in everyone on the roster and has been rewarded with numerous game-saving performances from unlikely heroes.
But let’s not forget what Woodson, who has his own issues to worry about, said before the game. “They (the Nets) are one of the most talented teams in the league in terms of personnel across the board. They can double up at every position.” (Woodson also said that the reason his Knicks weren’t able to turn their season around as quickly as the Nets was because “maybe the key guys that we lost were more valuable to our team versus what they lost,” which made all those who report on the Nets bite their lips to suppress laughing out loud.)
The Nets are the most expensive team in NBA history, with an approximately $102 million payroll and almost $90 million in luxury tax payments due. They should be pretty good in a conference that includes eight teams that are at least 10 games under .500.
It still remains an open question as to how good they can be when it’s win-or-go-home. Brooklyn general manager Billy King mortgaged the team’s future to win now, but then hired a neophyte to run it. It’s not illogical to look at that as a disadvantage when the Nets are facing teams with experienced coaches in the playoffs, Kidd’s two monthly awards notwithstanding.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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