The Brooklyn Nets entered the 2014 calendar year with a 10-21 record, the squad had lost six of seven at this point, with its only win of that batch coming against the lowly Milwaukee Bucks. Of course, at this point, no NBA team had crammed 31 games, many of them nationally televised against stout opponents, into a two-month term; but the Nets had to peel those games off in order to allow for the team’s mid-January trip to London, one that would see Brooklyn playing just one game in eight days.
That win in London – a 17-point thrashing of an Atlanta Hawks squad that at that time was far ahead of Brooklyn in the standings – wasn’t the team’s turnaround point, as Brooklyn had won five of six contests just prior to it – including conquests over the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. It helped right the schedule ship, though, and as a result the Nets are a gleaming 27-10 in 2014 alone. That run continued on Sunday evening, as the Nets came down from a double-digit disadvantage to down a Dallas Mavericks team that is clawing for its own playoff berth out West.
Over the last two seasons – and counting his two buzzer-beating game-winners this season — Johnson is shooting a remarkable 7-for-7 in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime when the Nets are tied or within three points.
“He’s clutch, man,” Deron Williams said. “There’s a reason the ball is in his hands at the end of games.”
Johnson’s All-Star appearance may have been a bit of a reach, but there’s no denying his ability as a Net to serve as a perfect go-to force late in games. Johnson’s size, handle, shooting touch and strength in the mid post allow him to get great looks with minimal fuss, and the resurgence of the once-again-sprightly Deron Williams is also drawing the defense’s eyes away from where they should be fixed – the man Kevin Garnett calls “Joe Jesus.”
Garnett is still sidelined with back woes, and he’ll be out for at least two more games before the Nets decide what to do with their center and hoped-for veteran sage. Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd has been mindful of KG’s minutes all season, sitting him out on the second night of back-to-backs and only playing him over 28 minutes one time (in a double-overtime win over Miami) all season. That sense of caution would seem to work out well down the regular season stretch for Garnett, but it hasn’t been able to halt the onset of age for a player that has been working on the NBA level since Bob Dole was a viable Presidential candidate.
With Garnett, scoring center Brook Lopez, and Andrei Kirilenko (who left Sunday’s game with an ankle sprain in another injury-plagued season) in and out of the lineup, Jason Kidd has made it work. The backcourt of Williams and journeyman guard Shaun Livingston are filling the holes in one’s head with the bumps in another’s, Pierce and Johnson continue to ham and egg it well on the wing, and the team continues to thrive defensively in spite of starting a rookie (the excitable Mason Plumlee) at center while handing big minutes to non-defenders like Andray Blatche and the recently-acquired Marcus Thornton.
The small lineups are closing out well, and denying penetration just enough to circle the wagons while Garnett sits.
That’s clearly a credit to Kidd, who had many wondering if he was an empty suit earlier in the season, especially in the wake of the rookie coach re-assigning Lawrence Frank, and an anonymous report from a scout that claimed that Kidd “doesn’t do anything” while on the bench.
General manager Billy King, who put together a roster that will cost owner Mikhail Prokhorov $190 million in payroll and luxury tax fees this year, says Kidd should be getting most of the dap for the turnaround. From the Daily News:
“The biggest thing (to the turnaround) I think is with Jason. Now we have a system of how we’re going to play, an identity,” he said. “So now, in putting a team together, I know which players to add to it. That’s something we’ve been searching for a while, is getting an identity. So now, going into the offseason, Jason and I are already talking about the type of players he wants and I have a good feel for it. But that’s the key. We have a system, and I think a lot of the credit is players playing well, but Jason has been amazing.”
The schedule has helped, the players are in better shape, and the rest of the league has failed to come up with an effective counter to the team’s smaller lineup. But, yes, Jason Kidd has taken some risks and they’ve paid off.
Entering Monday night’s contest against a “we have to lose” New Orleans team, the Nets are just a game and a half behind the Toronto Raptors for the lead in the Atlantic Division with 13 contests to play – a note that seems as stunning now as it would have in early January, with the seemingly rebuilding Raps then far ahead of a Brooklyn team that was built with championship aspirations. Ten of those 13 contests come against teams currently out of the playoff bracket, and the Nets will also match up with the Miami Heat for one final time – a squad they’ve already downed three times this season.
Somehow, this is do-able. A team that costs nearly $200 million, working with a rookie coach who fired the guy that seemed to call all the plays, one improving defensively without the presence of perhaps the greatest all-around defender in post-Bill Russell NBA history, one working with Shaun Livingston, and not Deron Williams, often bringing the ball up court, one looking off Paul Pierce in the clutch, one counting on Andray freakin’ Blatche off the bench … it’s working.
The Nets aren’t getting exactly what they’re paying for, because $190 million should be worth at least a 75-7 season, but one of the NBA’s most unorthodox organizations had strangely turned into a consistent, rock solid winner of a basketball team.
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