Nets Raptors Basketball

The Nets and Raptors start their playoff series Saturday in Toronto. (AP)

 

What had happened was: The Nets cast aside their usual uniforms and instead collectively donned a massive white flag in the final game of the regular season, which they lost 114-85 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The game mercifully brought to an end a streak of uninspired, boring basketball the Nets largely played over the final two weeks.

The Nets made rest their first priority, as Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Garnett, Alan Anderson, and Mirza Teletovic sat this one out. Instead, the Nets fielded a vaunted five of Jorge Gutierrez, Marquis Teague, Marcus Thornton, Andray Blatche, and Jason Collins. Andrei Kirilenko and Mason Plumlee made appearances of the bench, which was weird, because I wasn’t used to seeing NBA players on the court when they got in the game.

That was: A chore. No one wanted to watch the Nets’ collection of also-rans come out and skirmish with a non-playoff game when the team clearly didn’t give a damn, and this was in many senses not even an NBA game.

Where they stand: After a few days of jockeying, the dust has settled. The Nets will take the No. 6 seed and play the Toronto Raptors, who beat the New York Knicks Wednesday to cement their spot in the No. 3 seed, in the first round of the playoffs. Game 1 will take place at the Air Canada Centre Saturday on ESPN. Time TBD. With the loss, the Nets locked a spot in Miami’s half of the Eastern Conference bracket, which means Brooklyn will play No. 2 Miami in the second round if the Nets advance and Miami takes care of business against No. 7 Charlotte.

This came amid much dismay that the Nets would have to play the Chicago Bulls in the first round once again. The No. 4 Bulls will instead play the No. 5 Washington Wizards.

The stats: Well, they weren’t great. Marcus Thornton led the Nets with 20 points on 6-of-19 shooting — and shoot he did. The cuffs were off for Thornton, who is not shy about shooting in the first place. This was an exhibition in gunning.

Andray Blatche posted 20 points (8-of-18 shooting) and 12 rebounds and featured his usual collection of moves and hilarity. Andrei Kirilenko MADE A PAIR OF FREE THROWS and I don’t care about anything else he did.

Jason Collins was set free to fire, logging eight points on eight shots. The lumbering big man played 39 minutes, and you have to figure he’ll never play that many in an NBA game again.

Shot Chart Rorschach Test: A Christmas-themed square donut.
donut

Is Marquis Teague in the D-League yet? That’s a nope.

Game Grades: Read 'em here.

Was this wise? Maybe. Williams needed the rest. If Johnson needed it, he never would have told you so. Pierce has his shoulder thingy, and Garnett sweats a new ocean after each two-minute stint. There were reasons not to care, but there were also reasons to try and avoid Miami in the second round and stay in rhythm.

Also, I take a little more seriously Jason Kidd’s assertion that Garnett’s minutes load won’t increase in the playoffs given that he had absolutely no chance to increase it incrementally during the regular season. The Nets can probably only count on him for 22 minutes a game in the postseason.

WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE?

Shaun Livingston, not doin’ things: He didn’t play. That toe is really actin’ up.

Can you give me a comparison for the number of fast-break dunks the Nets gave up in the second half? Sure thing!

Across the river: The Knicks lost to the Toronto Raptors, putting to bed their miserable season and giving them 37 wins, matching the SCHOENE projection that Knicks fans were quick to call absurd before the season began.

Take that, Masai Ujiri.

Next up: The Nets start what they’ve been building toward since Jan. 1. Saturday they get to show that they really were built for the playoffs.

 

The Nets had plenty to joke around about on Thursday. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Nets had plenty to joke around about on Thursday. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

 

Here's a roundup of last night's Nets festivites:

What happened: The Nets thoroughly obliterated a Denver Nuggets team that is a shell of its healthy self, setting the tone early by going up 29-8 after the first quarter and never letting it get closer than 20 points in atypical Nets fashion. The Nets won the second game of a back-to-back on the road, one night after getting spanked by the Portland Trail Blazers without LaMarcus Aldridge and Thomas Robinson and indicating total embarrassment to reporters after the game.

You could tell Brooklyn's intensity was at its peak, and it was clear Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had no designs of losing this game. The Nets went on to pick up their first win in Denver since Jan. 2007.

Where they stand: The Nets are now 27-29, once again squarely facing that two-games-under-.500 plateau that has plagued them for the last few weeks. They're now 6th in the Eastern Conference, a half game ahead of Charlotte and two games behind Washington, which has won its last five including a triple-overtime thriller over Toronto Thursday.

The stats: The Nets somehow ended up shooting only 47.6 percent, but they held Denver to 37.5 percent and 6-of-22 from deep. The Nuggets had 30 made field goals and 24 turnovers. That race was close for most of the game.

Pierce led the Nets with 18 points. Everyone on the Nets' active roster scored. Yes, that includes Jason Collins, who had 3 points.

If I were a blowhard, I'd say the only important statistic is 1-0, the Nets' record in this game.

Fast breaking the Fast Breakers: 

Vintage Pierce: Pierce only had to play 22 minutes, but he was at his peak. He nailed threes from the top of the key and whirled into icy turnaround jumpers at the elbows. The Nets need this Pierce for the balance of the season in order to compete.

Joe Johnson still might not be healthy: Johnson sat out a game at the beginning of February as a result of knee tendinitis. The way he's moving and shooting, it appears to me that his knee is still barking at him. Johnson's not one to complain, and he never made an excuse last year when he bravely battled plantar fasciitis in the first-round series against the Bulls. But it might be best for the team if Johnson takes some time off now rather than soldiering through it. Given Kidd's hyper-conservative tendencies with injury and rest with the rest of his roster, I'm not sure why Johnson isn't getting the same opportunity to heal.

Kirilenko has been working on his granny shot:

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I defy you to show me a more Kirilenko shot than that.

Shaun Livingston, doing things: He did things. Nothing worthy of a GIF or video. But he was there. Stuff got done by him. He finished with 8 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and more than zero stuffs done.

The Alan Anderson/Marcus Thornton Experiment: Alan Anderson didn't play in the first three quarters of this game, and that was notable because he has played in every single game this season for the Nets. He's not shooting well (he's under 40 percent from the field this season and his three-point stroke has been ice cold in February). But I don't think his three-quarter DNP is necessarily a harbinger for things to come. This game was a good excuse to get Marcus Thornton some extended minutes and see what he could do with his new teammates. I doubt Kidd has made a decision either way as to which of them will get the bulk of the backup guard minutes down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs.

Andray Blatche wants nothing to do with your piggy-back rides:

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Andray Blatche was really good in this game, though: This was a quintessential #TheBestOfBlatche game. Granted, he wasn't wildly inconsistent and unpredictable, but he did all the good Blatche stuff with none of the dumpster-fire Blatche stuff. He had 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 steals in 18 minutes. And he drained a three from the wing.

JASON COLLINS HITS A LONG 2:

78eey

Go back to Germany, Dirk. Your services are no longer required. Jason Collins got this.

 

Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah

Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah have a history. (AP)

In 11 chances to play on the second half of a Brooklyn Nets back-to-back this season, Kevin Garnett has sat out in four of them. It's part of coach Jason Kidd's plan to rest Garnett during the season, to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

But he'll play tonight against the Chicago Bulls, as expected:
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Kevin Garnett turned back the clock just a few years tonight on a few plays, throwing back an emphatic rejection on a Danny Granger layup attempt and throwing down an alley-oop pass from teammate Jason Terry:

Garnett doesn't do either of these things nearly as often as in his golden years, but it's nice to know that the 37-year-old's still got it, even in short spurts, against one of the NBA's best teams.

 

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Danny Ainge

Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge. (AP)

In an interview with Baxter Holmes the Boston Globe, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who's been with the Celtics organization since 2003, opened up about trading Celtics Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets.

Some snippets:
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Kevin Garnett

The Nets look like a new team with Garnett one spot over. (AP)

The Brooklyn Nets had to lose their best players to begin playing their best.

Weird, right? Nobody expected this stretch. The Nets just lost their youngest All-Star, Brook Lopez, for the season. Then Deron Williams went down, undergoing treatment on both of his ankles. They got dominated by a San Antonio Spurs team heading into the New Year. At 10-21, without a draft pick, all seemed lost.

Today, they stand at 15-22, in the playoff race. And while there are a lot of factors, they've got 37-year-old Kevin Garnett to thank most.
... MORE →

 

Kevin Garnett

The Nets look like a new team with Garnett one spot over. (AP)

The Brooklyn Nets had to lose their best players to begin playing their best.

Weird, right? Nobody expected this stretch. The Nets just lost their youngest All-Star, Brook Lopez, for the season. Then Deron Williams went down, undergoing treatment on both of his ankles. They got dominated by a San Antonio Spurs team heading into the New Year. At 10-21, without a draft pick, all seemed lost.

Today, they stand at 15-22, in the playoff race. And while there are a lot of factors, they've got 37-year-old Kevin Garnett to thank most.

Garnett's been vocal about his disdain for playing center, citing more comfort at the power forward position. He signed off on the trade to Brooklyn partially because he'd play next to Lopez, who would take his position in the paint. He played the majority of his first sixteen years at the power forward position, only playing spot minutes at center until playing it full-time his last two seasons in Boston. He, um, didn't like it.

"Should've put that s--- in my contract," Garnett jokes about playing only at the 4. "Don't tell Jason I said that."

But with Lopez out, coach Kidd didn't have much of a choice. Rookie Mason Plumlee is promising, but nowhere near a starting-caliber player yet. Andray Blatche is at the pinnacle of entertainment precisely because he's at the nadir of reliability. Garnett was the natural choice, even if he doesn't consider it his natural position.

Kevin Garnett, Louis Williams, Alan Anderson

"We don't call him a 5,
we call them basketball players."
- Jason Kidd (AP)

Though it's not explicitly stated, it's implied that Garnett doesn't want to be thought of as just another center. The term "center" conjures images of slow, plodding players, known more for winning the genetic lottery than their fleetness and athleticism. Flip Saunders, Garnett's old coach, joked to Sports Illustrated in 2003 that Garnett was actually 6'13".

He takes to his newfound role like a moth to darkness. "It's not my preference, but it is what it is, and whatever we have to do to win," Garnett says of sliding over to the 5. "That's what it is."

Kidd's done what he can to make the change more palatable. "There are no positions," Kidd said when asked about Garnett's change. "Just guard the guy in front of you. We don't call him a five, we call them basketball players."

But despite the positionless basketball mantra, the roles and responsibilities are quite clear. In a lineup filled by a point guard and three wing players, the towering Garnett, at 6'11", 6'13", or whatever height he is, mans the middle as the team's procedural center.

And the difference has been staggering.

Kevin Garnett, Luis Scola

The Big Ticket. (AP)

Brooklyn's offense has hummed along just fine with or without Lopez and Williams, scoring 101.9 points per 100 possessions in 2013 and a nearly-identical 102.3 points per 100 possessions in 2014. But on defense, it's an entirely new ballgame: the Nets have allowed just 99.8 points per 100 possessions in their first six games, which would rank them as a top-7 defense over a full season.

They've slowed down to a snail's pace to accommodate their roster (they've played more than six fewer possessions per game), and it's worked. They've worn down the defending champion Miami Heat, held a revolutionary run-and-chuck Golden State Warriors offense to 3-19 three-point shooting over the final 42 minutes, forced 21 turnovers out of Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder, and held the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks to 38.6 percent shooting.

Nearly every Nets player has credited the team's communication for their defensive improvement, and the talk starts with Garnett. That's no secret: Garnett's visible and vocal roaming the paint, something Lopez has worked on since his rookie year.

When the Nets are fully healthy, Lopez is the team's best offensive player on a team that has four high-usage offensive-minded starters. Losing his offense is a potential killer, but they've got other high-level offensive players to manage the difference.

Defensively, Lopez is a better pure rim protector than Garnett these days when healthy, and his strength deterred numerous players in the post this season, but he's not the quick help defender that Garnett is, even at 37 years old. At power forward, Garnett's quickness is less important, since he's often out of the paint and out of help position. But as a center, Garnett's a one-man deterrent, leading to plays like this key block on Stephen Curry:

With Garnett on the floor since Lopez went down, the Nets have allowed just 47.9 percent shooting in the paint, and opponents have scored a full ten fewer points in the paint per 48 minutes with Garnett as the team's designated center.


Note: League Average is as of 1/12/2014. Don't see the chart? Refresh the page. Still don't see it? Click here for the non-interactive image.

The NBA calls it smallball, but it's more like longball. With the rangy Garnett and Shaun Livingston (6'7" with a 6'11" wingspan) at point and center, the Nets have two extraordinary wingspans in their starting lineup. Add Paul Pierce (6'7"), Alan Anderson (6'6" with a 6'10" wingspan), Joe Johnson (6'8" with a 6'9" wingspan), and Andrei Kirilenko (6'9" with a 7'4" wingspan), the Nets have a flurry of arms sneaking into passing lanes and blocking shots. (When Deron Williams returns to the lineup, expect him to play alongside Livingston and Anderson for equal stretches; the Livingston-Williams combo has exciting potential, but also leaves the Nets without a point guard off the bench.)

The return of Kirilenko, emergence of Livingston, and added defensive responsibilities for Garnett have turned the Nets into a strong defensive team. Since the beginning of 2014, they've forced more than two more turnovers per game, they've picked up four more points per game off turnovers, and have allowed nearly five fewer points per game in the paint.

Garnett deflects praise to his head coach, who has gone through his own hell this season between a fractured relationship with his former lead assistant, criticism from all angles, and a team decimated by health issues, and soda spills. "I think Jason has simplified some things, I think through the help of communicating and talking to one another, understanding those schemes and understanding what he wants. I feel like it's helping us."

"Then repetition, repetition. As easy as people may think it is to just come in and have one system then change another system up, it's not that easy. Especially when you're trying to create chemistry and create a type of flow."

This isn't a call to trade Brook Lopez, who is still the team's best player. In the long-term, he's their most viable star. Garnett's legs will give at some point, and Pierce, a free agent after this year, will leave an offensive hole that the Nets will need Lopez to fill.

But in the short term this season, the Nets have had the chemistry they needed without Lopez. And all it took was moving their power forward to center, which was only possible by losing their best player.