14-22, 15-52. You’ll find out what this means in a minute.
Looking at the stat line, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out why the Nets were in this game. They turned the ball over 16 times and shot 41.7% from the field. They suffered quiet performances from Kris Humphries, Travis Outlaw (what else is new?) and a poor shooting night from Brook Lopez. After one quarter, the Nets were down 7 and allowing 64% shooting. But this game wasn’t about the Nets’ “big” names – although you can take the word “big” with a grain of salt – it was about the all-around performance from players you wouldn’t expect and excellent defensive adjustments.
Firstly: Devin Harris had a great game. Despite his four turnovers, a 22-6-8 statline is nothing to sneeze at, and the Nets are now 7-1 when Devin scores more than 21. He really set the tone in the first quarter – scoring 11 and helping put Josh Smith into early foul trouble. Smith had a huge game against the Nets in their previous meeting (34 points on 14-16 shooting) but never could get into a rhythm today. He finished with 15 points, but only shot 3-9 from the field and played only 26 minutes. I’m not sure how many fouls Devin forced on him, but it was certainly more than one, and his constant pressure meant his contribution went beyond his already impressive statline.
But this game wasn’t about Devin. He couldn’t do it by himself, and sure enough, the Nets picked up contributions from almost everyone you wouldn’t expect. Stephen Graham, starting for defensive purposes, surprised the heck out of me – scoring ten efficient points, grabbing seven boards, and keeping Joe Johnson (14 points, 4-16 shooting) mostly in check. Troy Murphy played his best game in a long time and actually looked like a valuable member of an NBA rotation. Favors was given minutes at center, and while he wasn’t ever really in the flow of the offense, played very well in the final three quarters. The Nets bench scored 30 points to the Hawks’ 11. Stephen Graham, who’s normally a bench player, could add ten to that number. That right there is a huge difference.
But of all the bench guys, it was Sasha Vujacic who was the unheralded hero of the game. Look, I don’t want to like Sasha. He’s been an inside joke among me & some friends for a long time. But fast don’t lie, and Sasha is growing on me fast. His hustle is certainly appreciated – he’s getting quick open looks on offense and he’s racking up steals on the defensive end. I’ve made a lot of fun of him since the trade, but I can’t be upset at his contributions today. Here are two examples:
1) At the end of the third quarter, the Nets had the ball with seven seconds remaining and Troy Murphy threw the ball out of bounds. On Atlanta’s inbounds, Sasha poked the ball away, ran it down, and threw it to Devin for a potential buzzer-beater. That sort of hustle is definitely appreciated on a team that desperately needs it.
2) On his first pick & roll with Favors in the fourth quarter, Sasha found Favors at the rim for a layup and-1 to put the Nets up 69-64. Maybe Farmar can learn something from him.
All in all, Sasha finished with 10 points, six rebounds, three steals, three assists, one bloodied lip (which he played through all game) and a game high +/- of +23. He made a huge difference on both ends of the floor today.
The Nets’ defense simply cannot go unmentioned here. While the first quarter was awful – open shot after open shot allowed the Hawks to shoot 14-22 (63.6%) – afterwards, the Nets clamped down and forced a ton of contested, long two-pointers. After that first quarter, the Hawks only scored 52 points in the next 36 minutes, shooting 15-52 (28.8%) for the rest of the game. The Hawks made fourteen field goals in the first quarter and only fifteen for the rest of the game. Yes, you read that right. The Hawks made just one more field goal in the final 36 than they made in the first 12. The adjustments that the Nets defense made – clogging the lane, playing legitimate man defense, playing the passing lanes at the right times – were staggering, and while there were still a few lapses I have to give Avery credit for pointing the Nets in the right direction.
I’m going to close on a point a commenter named Jimmy made in our pregame thread. Last year, it took until March 24th for the Nets to win eight games. While this season has certainly had its struggles, the Nets have definitely taken a leap forward. Today was a big sign of that.
More thoughts after the jump.
I’m not sure why, and I have to look more at the games to confirm this. But it seems like Jordan Farmar is, for whatever reason, unwilling to pass to the rookie Favors. On one particularly egregious example in the second, Farmar received a pick from Favors, Favors established solid post position, and Farmar actually threw it over his head to the perimeter. The pass was picked off easily by Atlanta and led to two points on the other end. I’ve noticed this before – Favors has gotten lanes off pick & rolls and Farmar has seemingly ignored him. I wonder if there’s an issue, or at the very least a mental block.
The title of this article references a book by Joel Shepherd called Sasha: A Trial of Blood And Steel.
A quick note for Brook Lopez: Hey Brook, please keep the ball high when you’re double-teamed. Thanks!
Travis Outlaw is playing himself out of the rotation. He’s shot over 50% from the field in a game once since November 15th – that’s over a month of poor shooting. He’s got injuries to Anthony Morrow and Quinton Ross injury to thank for his minutes today, but he’s got no one to blame for his 3-12 night but himself.