Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez weren't around for Friday night's game, but the Brooklyn Nets' 105-96 victory over the Houston Rockets made a statement all the same. A statement that's been in the making ever since the turn of the year, and a statement clinching a playoff berth that once looked improbable.
Jason Kidd's Nets are finally living up to expectations, and those expectations have playoff success written all over them.
That was the plan all along. This team was supposed to be better, infused with veteran talent and built to contend. If there was any team in the East who could break up the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers' dominance, it was Brooklyn. Or so we thought.
Then the season started.
The Nets ended November with a woeful 5-12 record. December wasn't much better.
Then something happened, and Kidd's club hasn't been the same since. Brooklyn went 10-3 in January and followed a solid February with a 12-4 record in March. That latest stretch included signature wins against the Heat, Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies. Tuesday's win over Houston adds to the list, proving that Brooklyn can hang in there against the league's very best.
The Nets are actually 3-0 against the Heat, which should be all you need to know about their competitiveness. Though they're 0-4 against the Indiana Pacers, that record comes with caveat. Three of those losses happened before January's about face. The fourth was by just a point.
By any metric, the Nets are dark-horse contenders, more capable than any other Eastern Conference rival of taking the Heat or Pacers down. That's not too shabby for a club that looked lottery-bound in December.
The Nets were originally built to be anything but small. The frontcourt was to include Lopez, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, a traditional lineup that merged the best of Brooklyn with the best of the former Boston Celtics. That was the plan anyway.
But BrooklynNets.com's Lenn Robbins explains the transition:
Then the Nets lost Lopez to a broken bone in his right foot. But even before the Lopez injury, Plan A wasn’t working. The Nets were getting outrebounded almost on a nightly basis. They were getting pushed around in the paint like traffic cones getting blown away by 18-wheelers. Enter Plan B: Coach Jason Kidd has moved Livingston into the starting lineup alongside Williams, who now has more freedom to be a scoring guard.
Results were immediate, the kind of results commensurate with the massive investment owner Mikhail Prokhorov made in his franchise. Hardwood Paroxysm's Jack Winter profiled the initial turnaround back in January.
The overall results behind this wholesale adaptation have been, simply, staggering: an 8-1 record (.889), 107.5 offensive rating, 100.0 defensive rating, and +7.5 net rating. Compared to where Brooklyn was in 2013, they’ve been something else entirely: 10-21 (.322), 101.9 offensive rating, 106.7 defensive rating, -4.8 net rating.
The new rotation works for a number of reasons.
Livingston isn't much of a scorer, but he's one heck of a glue guy. He's a solid passer who can handle point duties, allowing Williams to play off the ball and look for his shot. He's a long, active defender—the kind who can help Brooklyn turn defense into offense and push the tempo. His presence is as much about making Williams better as anything else, and Williams knows it (per Robbins):
I get into a rhythm by coming off screens, playing like that. It’s good to have Shaun out there and being able to roam out there and being more aggressive. I like to come off screens, not to do everything off the dribble. I get into a rhythm like that. That’s how I like to play.
But there are also domino effects that make this work. Joe Johnson is better in isolation against small forwards. He doesn't have a lightening quick first step, so he naturally fairs better against larger, less mobile opponents on the wing. Similarly, putting Paul Pierce at the 4 ensures more mismatches wherein bigs are slower to step out on the perimeter and put a hand in his face.
Small ball doesn't work for everyone, but it's doing wonders for these Nets—improving ball movement and leading to a much sharper offense. Brooklyn scored over 100 points in 12 of its 16 games in March. They broke the century mark just 12 times through the end of December.
In a league increasingly dominated by teams that can light it up, the Nets have to go with what works—and they have. It might not cohere with their original plan, but it's proven a vast improvement thereon.
The obvious question is whether going small will continue to work when games slow down in the playoffs. And the almost-as-obvious answer is: Just look at the Miami Heat! Miami has the advantage of being able to slide a beast like LeBron James over to power forward, but it's worth to remember how well Pierce has defended James from time to time. The Truth's old-man strength makes him the perfect option to play power forward in a smaller lineup.
He certainly isn't complaining.
At the beginning of the season, it almost looked like the wheels had finally come off for Pierce. He wasn't moving well and even more disturbingly, he just wasn't making shots. Some of that could be chalked up to playing in a new system. Some could even be attributed to the psychological shock of no longer being a Boston Celtic.
But the outcome was what it was, whatever the explanation. Pierce averaged just 12.1 points per contest in November, making a lowly 35 percent of his field-goal attempts. The usually accurate long-range shooter was cashing in on just 23 percent of his three-point attempts.
The turnaround for Pierce actually started happening in December, before the whole small-ball thing moved him to a new position. He's seen steady improvement ever since, and March was his best month yet, averaging 14.6 points while shooting 51 percent from the field.
What a difference a few months can make.
Pierce won't put up huge numbers, but that's because the Nets have scoring options. They need him to be a complementary scorer, not an offensive focal point. He's settled into that role with aplomb.
More than any lineup change or shift in coaching philosophy, that could be instrumental to Brooklyn's postseason ambitions. Joe Johnson and Deron Williams have certainly had their shares of playoff success, but not in the same way Pierce has. Few have. The Nets will need Pierce to play big in crunch time, taking the cold-blooded shots he's known for.
Now that he's actually making those shots, Brooklyn has a chance against anyone.
Though injuries have limited Garnett's impact, his story has been similar to Pierce's. He attributes the improved play to a shift in thinking, according to the New York Post's Tim Bontemps:
The difference in the way we’re playing is we were thinking secondary as we come in. Then Brook [gets hurt], Deron’s been beat up, and we’ve had to be primaries now...When you’re a primary, plays are being called for you...not only that but you’re touching the ball, you’re in a rhythm. Then the mentality of a primary is different. We’re thinking like primaries, we’re out here trying to be aggressive.
Brook Lopez's season-ending injury may have paradoxically been key to things changing for the better. The offense was supposed to run through him, and that makes everyone else secondary. Now that Brooklyn's adopted more of an ensemble approach, guys like Pierce and Garnett will get their opportunities—and probably make the most of them.
The Nets have six players averaging double-figures, a testament to their willingness to share the ball and the depth that allows them to do so. There's no hero-ball these days, no over-dependence on Deron Williams to dominate the ball and make things happen. These are a different kind of Nets, ones who take a diversified approach to scoring the ball.
And it's paying huge dividends.
NBCSports' Brett Pollakoff notes that while Brooklyn may not boast Heat-caliber superstars, it has a very capable Big Three in its own right:
The team has three legitimate stars in Williams, Pierce and Johnson who are all capable of taking over offensively on a given night. It’s been Pierce the last two games, getting off to insanely strong first quarter starts and leading his team in scoring. It was Johnson on this night, and it’s been Williams on several others.
The balance is key to keeping opposing defenders off balance, but it's also important in soliciting buy-in from a deep roster looking for opportunities. Andray Blatche and Marcus Thornton are both averaging 11.4 points off the bench, and guys like Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson aren't far behind.
Brooklyn's balance will also prove valuable in crunch time. Who takes the big shot? Who takes games over in the fourth? It's impossible for defenses to zero in on any one threat, and that's essential to execution down the stretch in close games—the kinds of games that typify the postseason.
No one will count the Nets as favorites to take home a title this season. And even if they're well-positioned to give Miami or Indiana a run for its money, Brooklyn will by no means be construed as a favorite. We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves.
But if the playoffs started today, the Nets would face the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Even without home-court advantage, that's an entirely winnable series. Given the Nets' recent play, they'd probably even qualify as favorites.
It's the second round where things start to get more iffy. While we should be reticent to read too much into Brooklyn's recent play, there's every reason to believe this club could push Miami or Indiana to six or seven games. At that point, anything can happen.
There's a lot of veteran grit on this team, a nice mix of skill and athleticism. Newcomers like rookie Mason Plumlee are finding their grooves and making key contributions. Reasons for optimism abound. This team was built to win in the playoffs, and its finally starting to look like it could do just that.
Even if not especially when the odds aren't in their favor.
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