The Brooklyn Nets acquired Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to be complementary pieces on a championship team. The two future Hall of Famers have been third and fourth options all season, though they will need to take on a leading role in the playoffs for the Nets to make a deep run.
Brooklyn was supposed to be Deron Williams’ team, but the three-time All-Star has been hampered by ankle problems and lacks the explosiveness he exhibited earlier in his career. All-Star center Brook Lopez is sidelined with a broken foot, and leading scorer Joe Johnson is contributing just 15.5 points per game.
Seven-game playoff series are knockdown, drag ‘em out fights, and the Nets are heading into battle without an alpha dog.
That is where Garnett and Pierce come in. Brooklyn’s roster is full of players with extensive playoff experience, including Williams, Johnson and Andrei Kirilenko, though K.G. and “The Truth” are the only ones with a championship. They have the personality and the pedigree to lead.
That is not to say Pierce is going to revert to the dominant scorer that he was five years ago, or that Garnett will grab 15 boards a night. The former Celtics must lead by example, from pregame preparation to their intensity on the court. They need to set the tone with physical play and take big shots early in the playoffs. Their teammates will follow.
Garnett and Pierce’s roles will not be merely inspirational. Jason Kidd has preserved the two aging stars for the playoffs, playing Pierce 28.4 minutes per night and Garnett 21.0. Those numbers will increase.
Pierce is averaging a career-low 13.4 points per game, down 5.2 points from last season. The drop is correlated with a decrease in minutes (from 33.4 to 28.4), though his points per 36 minutes have also declined from 20.0 to 17.0.
The longtime Celtic is shooting right around his career averages from the field (44.0 percent in 2013-14, compared to 44.7 for his career) and behind the arc (36.9 percent in 2013-14, compared to 37.0). He is simply seeing fewer opportunities now that he is lower on the pecking order.
That should work to his advantage in the playoffs, as opponents will game-plan around Johnson, the Nets’ leading scorer, and Williams, Brooklyn’s top playmaker. Pierce, who never relied on quickness, is still adept at using excellent footwork to create a shot, even when facing elite defenders or defenses.
Garnett may be even more crucial to the Nets’ success in the postseason. Even at 37, he is an excellent interior defender and an elite rebounder, and Brooklyn is likely to face either the Chicago Bulls or Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, two teams with big frontcourts that like to crash the boards.
The Nets’ primary concern regarding Garnett is his health. The big man has not played since February 23 due to back spasms and did not join the team on its current three-game road trip, according to Mike Mazzeo of ESPNNewYork.com.
The Nets’ defensive rating this season is 100.6 when Garnett is in the game and 105.5 without him, per NBA.com (subscription required). Thanks to a tremendous wingspan and superb instincts, he is still among the league's best at defending the pick-and-roll. And though his 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes do not jump off the stat sheet, he does an excellent job of protecting the rim.
As seen on the chart below, Brooklyn’s opponents are shooting 56.4 percent at the rim when Garnett is on the bench.
That percentage drops to 51.3 when he is in the game.
According to Sport VU’s player tracking data, opponents connect on just 47.8 percent of defended shots at the rim when K.G. is in the game. That is a lower percentage than teams shoot on defended shots at the rim against the Houston Rockets when Dwight Howard (48.1 percent) is playing or the Memphis Grizzlies with defending Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in the game (48.9 percent), according to NBA.com.
Mason Plumlee, who has been starting at center in Garnett’s absence, is not nearly as much of a deterrent around the basket. Opponents are knocking down 51.4 percent of defended shots at the rim with Plumlee on the court.
Garnett’s contributions on the glass are equally important for a Nets team ranked 29th in rebound rate at 47.1 percent. Toronto is 10th at 51.1 percent, Chicago is tied for third at 51.9 percent, and the Indiana Pacers, a team Brooklyn could meet in the second round is second at 52.4, according to ESPN.com.
Do not let Garnett’s 6.7 rebounds per game fool you. That translates to 11.5 per 36 minutes, which is significantly higher than Plumlee’s 8.4. The contrast is even greater on the defensive glass, where K.G. is grabbing 9.6 boards per 36 minutes, compared to Plumlee’s 5.7.
Garnett is unlikely to tip the rebounding balance in the Nets' favor against any of the teams mentioned above, but he can minimize the gap and prevent players like Chicago’s Joakim Noah (11.2 rebounds per contest) from dominating the glass. Pierce, who, along with Johnson, mans the forward positions, has always been a good rebounder for his size and can also be expected to chip in on the boards.
Garnett and Pierce are in the twilight of their careers. They cannot carry a team the way they once did, but they can still lead. They are also both still capable of dominating for periods of time. The Nets are hoping that the extra rest padded into the playoff schedule will allow K.G. and “The Truth” to turn back the clock just enough to spark the rest of the team.