BOSTON—On a February evening in which the Brooklyn Nets lost by 44 points to the Portland Trail Blazers, the fourth-worst defeat in franchise history, there were two distinctly different reactions in the Nets locker room after the game.
Deron Williams praised the Blazers for their effort, acknowledging that you have to give credit to your opponent in a 44-point win.
“When we lose like this it’s a complete lack of focus,” Garnett told the New York Daily News after the game. “There’s no way we should be losing by 40 to any NBA team with the guys we got. I’ve got to say it’s a complete lack of focus. That’s all I have to say. We just didn’t show up.”
“We could be playing the Eastern Conference All-Stars. We shouldn’t lose by 40,” Pierce said. “At this point in the season – the second half of the season, there’s only so many games left. There’s no way we should come out and play this way.”
The Nets have won six of their last seven games since those pointed words demanding accountability traveled through the Brooklyn locker room.
Last July, Nets general manager Billy King targeted the former Celtic stars with talk like that in mind. He needed players with leadership credentials for his locker room after watching Brooklyn show little fight during a disappointing first-round exit against the Bulls in 2013.
King mortgaged a significant part of Brooklyn’s long-term future for Pierce and Garnett, but he did so knowing both players could provide a voice in the locker room that the 2012-13 Nets desperately lacked. That need was readily apparent to the players on the roster, as well.
“We had a lot of guys that are somewhat quiet or somewhat leaders by example,” Joe Johnson told Bleacher Report about last year’s roster. “[Pierce and Garnett] lead by example and they are leaders in the locker room, so they have been great for us. It’s been a constant all year since training camp. Paul doing a lot of talking, KG talks everyday. They’ve been fantastic for our team.”
Jason Kidd was another piece of the Nets’ offseason makeover, and his reign as head coach couldn’t have kicked off with much more turmoil. Brooklyn’s 9-19 record combined with an ugly falling out with top assistant coach Lawrence Frank could have fractured most NBA locker rooms with lofty expectations.
Instead, the Nets locker room stuck together despite the discord, with Pierce and Garnett providing a steady and respected influence on a roster with a variety of personalities.
“They have been huge,” Kidd explained. “Especially the way we started this season, those guys have been professional. Nothing’s changed about who they are as a person and a player. They come to work everyday to get better and they’ve been pretty much the glue of the team.”
Reserve forward Andrei Kirilenko explained just how crucial both players have been in keeping the team focused on the bigger picture despite the team’s growing pains.
“We had a tough time in the beginning,” Kirilenko acknowledged. “Because of the new players, new team, new coach. Everyone was just getting together. The main job for the veterans [like Pierce and Garnett] is making everyone feel like they are in working mode."
Even when things go wrong, you still maintain your pace. You trust your teammates, you trust your coaches, and that’s what [Pierce and Garnett’s] jobs have been. Force everyone to think positive instead of dropping your heads and thinking about losing the games. When I started my career, Karl Malone was the same type [of leader] like Kevin or Paul. He was loud, and heard in the locker room. Those are definitely two guys that you can hear.
The Nets have taken that attitude to heart, overcoming a tough start and a season-ending injury to Brook Lopez in December and turning their season around during the past three months.
Since the start of the calendar year, the Nets have compiled a 22-9 record, a top-five mark in the NBA over that time period. How has Brooklyn managed to pull it together? Much of the credit has gone to the former Celtics.
“Those two have given us veteran leadership,” Andray Blatche said. “I feel like that’s why we are doing so much better in the second half of the season.”
“I’ve been around some great leaders,” Johnson continued. “But I would definitely put those two at the top.”
Now that the Nets are within striking distance of the third seed in the East, there’s a growing confidence taking over the Nets locker room when it comes to the postseason.
“Obviously we are a different team.” Johnson said. “We got guys who have been there before, with championship pedigree. Those guys are going to be the main reason why we advance. We really have to take heed to what we have to do offensively and defensively and keep communicating and keep playing hard.”
“[Pierce and Garnett give you] everything that you need to win a championship.” Blatche explained. “Scoring, defense, everything.”
The Nets have a long road in front of them if they want to reach those heights. Still, the fact remains that Pierce and Garnett have a history of thriving in an underdog role, especially when the postseason rolls around.
With both veterans providing valuable leadership for a rejuvenated Nets squad this April, don’t expect them to go down without a fight this time.