Following a disastrous first few months, the Brooklyn Nets’ season of redemption got another welcome jolt Saturday night with the return of Kevin Garnett, who chipped in 10 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes in his team’s 105-101 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
I know it's the Sixers, but the Nets have to be ecstatic with how Garnett looks. This is easily the best-case scenario.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 6, 2014
Not a moment too soon, either, with a familiar foe—the Chicago Bulls—looming large as Brooklyn's first-round playoff matchup (if the season ended today) for the second year in a row.
We all know how it turned out last year, with Chicago exerting its warriors' will en route to a seven-game upset.
But while Brooklyn will no doubt be better prepared this time around, the threat these Bulls pose to the Nets’ salvaged season cannot be understated.
Consider: Since January 24—a span of 35 games—the Bulls have allowed just three opponents to top 100 points in a game: the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, the latter two of whom Chicago wound up beating.
During that stretch, the Bulls have boasted the league’s best overall defensive efficiency (96.9), a full 2.1 points ahead of the second-place Indiana Pacers, per NBA.com (media stats subscription only).
Whoever squares off against the Bulls in Round 1, having an offense deep with options and crisp of ball movement will be essential to unlocking Chicago’s oppressive D—and KG could be key to that equation.
Before sustaining a back injury in late February, Garnett’s on-court presence didn’t exactly translate to a high-flying offense, with the Nets charting a paltry 99.4 offensive rating with Garnett on the floor (and a minus-1.2 net rating overall), according to NBA.com.
Indeed, for a time, well before the Nets’ much-ballyhooed small-ball turnaround, Garnett’s frustration with his role in Jason Kidd’s offense became something of a hot topic. Take his remarks in this dispatch from the New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy published on January 1, back when the Nets were 10-21 and in danger of having their season implode in front of them:
Honestly, I have no rhythm. I’m trying to establish some confidence and figure this whole, ‘Where I fit into the offense’ thing. Right now I’m just not even a priority. I’m trying to be more of a defensive-minded guy. ... So I probably need to be a lot more aggressive. Right now my mental is more defensive right now than offense.
Looks like just about everyone got the message:
|Oct. 30 - Jan. 1||98.1||104.5||-6.4|
|Jan. 2 - Feb. 24||103.5||95.8||7.7|
KG’s sporadic offensive influence aside, Brooklyn has tallied its fourth-highest assist ratio—the number of possessions per 100 on which a field goal was assisted—with Garnett on the floor (17.2—for players who have logged more than 150 total minutes), as well as its third-highest assist-to-turnover ratio (1.51).
Additionally, the Nets are logging their fifth-best overall rebounding percentage (47.5 percent), and their best defensive rebounding percentage (76.4 percent) when KG’s on the court.
Against a Bulls team that allows the second-fewest assists per game (19.4) and grabs the sixth-largest percentage of offensive rebounds (27.6 percent), Brooklyn’s prowess with Garnett becomes even more important.
Back on March 6, less than two weeks after Garnett was first sidelined, Brooklyn’s Shaun Livingston—speaking to Fred Kerber of the New York Post—underscored just how large the loss of KG loomed:
He’s our vocal leader. He’s our anchor on defense. He makes our team that much better just with his presence out there. I don’t think anybody is able to have that impact, outside of the superstars in this league. It’s not like he’s out there scoring 30 and 15. It’s his presence, being vocal, his leadership.
Livingston is right, of course: Few players in the history of the modern NBA boast as many intangible bona fides, to say nothing of the sheer defensive intelligence, of Brooklyn’s excitable veteran forward.
But to beat the Bulls—a team that wears ugly wins on their sleeves—Garnett will have to pull more than a bit of duty at the center position, where his ability to consistently hit mid-range jump shots will be key to drawing Joakim Noah away from the paint, where he’s most defensively destructive.
Thus far this season, Chicago is allowing opponents to shoot just 37.9 percent from between 15 and 19 feet (third best in the league), but a full 40 percent from between 10 and 14 feet (18th in the league)—both of which constitute a large swath of KG’s late-career comfort zone.
This is not to say Brooklyn’s offensive fortunes depend solely on Garnett. Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Livingston: All of them will have to bring their offensive A-games if the Nets hope to prevent another first-round ouster at the hands of the bullies from Chicago.
But to make good on their team’s highly touted promise and considerable payroll, the Nets will need a bit of vintage Garnett—the snarl as well as the stroke—to aid their cause.
Some NBA.com media stats subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 5 unless otherwise noted.