OK, so two of the most important Brooklyn Nets players — Reggie Evans and Brook Lopez — are out tonight with the flu and the foot, respectively. The team’s playing against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are 14-4 and the reigning Western Conference Champions.
So that’s probably a bad sign. But it’s not the be-all-end-all. Here’s four reasons why you should watch tonight’s game.
1) The Brooklyn Nets still have tonight’s X-Factor. Lopez’s ability to score and Evans’ defense and rebounding will be sorely missed tonight. No question. But they’ll still have tonight’s most important piece: Gerald Wallace. Wallace will be checking Kevin Durant tonight.
Durant can splash from anywhere on the floor, and he’s cruising to yet another historic season. But consider this: in 9 games against each other, Wallace has held Durant to 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 5.4 free throw attempts per game, on 39% shooting and just 26% from beyond the arc. All those are well below Durant’s career averages. (Plus, Wallace’s teams are 5-4 against Durant’s Sonics/Thunder.)
As big as Evans and Lopez are, they’re not the ultimate key to tonight’s game. Gerald Wallace is. If Wallace can keep Durant from cooking, the 6-1 at home Nets can stay in this one.
2) Andray Motherofwhatintheworldisgoingon Blatche. If you’d told me one month ago that I’d be lauding Andray Blatche as a reason to watch a Brooklyn Nets-OKC Thunder game without Lopez or Evans, I’d probably have thrown acid in your face and banished you back to the netherworld. But it’s true. Blatche has looked and played the part of an effective starting center in the past three games, averaging 17 points and 10 boards on over 50% shooting. Against the Boston Celtics, he grabbed as many offensive rebounds as the entire Celtics team did. He’s been outstanding on both ends of the floor.
Don’t believe me? (Because I wouldn’t.) In the last three games, the Nets have outscored opponents 190-161 with Blatche on the floor, and have been outscored 110-92 with him off. That’s a difference of almost 35 points per 100 possessions. Shot selection is key: In the last 3 games, 29 of Blatche’s 40 field goal attempts have been from within five feet and he’s shooting 66% in that space. Blatche has made a concerted effort to stay near the rim, and he’s getting buckets off easy feeds from Deron Williams and by creating space in the post.
Blatche is an enigma by definition, but with additional minutes his pendulum has swung wildly upward. It’ll be a lot of fun to see what he does against the strong but plodding Kendrick Perkins — the type of defender that a tuned-in Blatche can take to school.
3) #FreeMirza. Mirza Teletovic has not been shy about shooting — I think his first field goal attempt took him all of six seconds on the floor, if that. He does a few things well, but shooting is the most notable one. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shot well at all in the season’s early stretch, so much so that Avery Johnson took him out of the rotation entirely.
But we’re talking about 38 bad minutes of shooting. We’re approaching the point in the season where small sample sizes are getting a little bigger, but Teletovic’s sample size is still minute. In 38 minutes, he’s shot 7-22, 4-16 from beyond the arc. Bad, but not insurmountably bad.
With Evans & Lopez sitting tonight, Teletovic is bound to get minutes. He wasn’t the Euroleague’s leading scorer by accident. He’s getting open looks. Eventually, he’ll knock them down. Is “eventually” tonight?
4) Brooklyn’s Backcourt. Always. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have been in a pressure cooker all season. We’ve been waiting for both of them to “get it” at the same time over the course of a game. It’s come in spurts here and there, but they’ve slowly but surely begun to get accustomed to one another — with Williams sharing the court with him, Johnson’s three-point percentage has leapt to 38.6%.
Johnson is still more comfortable leading the Bench Mob than playing second fiddle to Williams, but the pieces are there. He’s got himself free on a few occasions when D-Will probed the defense for open looks. The Thunder can be overaggressive on both ends of the floor — Williams matching that aggressiveness and Johnson sneaking away from it could pay some serious dividends.