The Brooklyn Nets are not on just any five-game win streak. Since the calendar turned to 2014, they haven't lost a game, beating the Thunder, Cavs, Hawks, Warriors (ending the Dubs' 10-game winning streak) and, Friday night, the Heat in double-overtime.
Just as impressive as who the Nets have beaten is who they've beaten them without. The team is without Brook Lopez for the season after their starting center and leading scorer went down for the season with a broken foot. Against Golden State and Miami, point guard Deron Williams sat with an ankle injury.
The Nets, 10-21 when the streak started, kept winning anyway.
Now they sit at 15-21 -- still underwhelming, but no longer a total disgrace -- and would hold the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs if the season ended today, facing the same Heat they've beaten twice now and successfully pissed off Friday night.
Big Ticket in the Middle
Brook Lopez is an all-star and one of the five best centers in the league, but this team has played better with Kevin Garnett in the middle. Even with Lopez on the floor, it's been a disaster when Garnett has been at power forward. When Garnett is the Nets' tallest player, good things have generally happened.
Two takeaways from that lineup data: Garnett and Blatche should never play at the same time, and it almost doesn't matter who else plays, the Nets lineups Garnett anchors at center are far better than any other alignment.
Garnett, for his part, doesn't seem to thrilled about it. He's always been a skinny dude and doesn't like banging against centers inside:
KG on playing center. Says it's not his "preferred position." Says, "should have put that shit in my contract."— Tom Lorenzo (@TomLorenzo) January 11, 2014
Too bad, Big Ticket. The Nets are at their best when Garnett is in the middle and can draw the opposing team's biggest player away from the rim to guard his jump shots. Lopez commands double-teams around the rim, but the rest of the Nets were too slow to get any separation on the perimeter, making attacking the rim a tricky proposition with the big man in the lineup. With Garnett lurking at 15 feet out, the lane is now open and the Nets are taking advantage.
Enter Shaun Livingston
Shaun Livingston has been quietly producing around the league for a few years, most recently in Cleveland. This year he's exploded, thanks to playing time afforded to him by Williams' increasingly depressing slew of ankle injuries. Finally on Friday he was able to show on a national stage what Nets fans have seen all year: At 6'7 with his athleticism, he's one of the best backup point guards in the league and a capable starter.
In fact, Livingston's per-36 numbers in Brooklyn are nearly identical to what they were last year with the Cavaliers. He's at 10.7 points, 5.5 assists, and 4.1 rebounds a game per 36 minutes this year, after 10.9, 4.8 and 4.3 in 2012-2013. Livingston is shooting just over 46 percent from the field and is a complete non-factor from deep.
He is athletic, fast and big, all things the Nets desperately need in any lineup. Livingston grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds against the Heat -- leading both teams -- and some of them were absolutely massive. He blocked three shots in key moments and ran the offense without Williams. He will continue to be a huge part of success in Brooklyn, even when Williams returns.
With Garnett shifting to the center, head coach Jason Kidd elected to put the 6'6 Paul Pierce at power forward and start Alan Anderson along with Joe Johnson, Williams and Livingston. The key here again is speed and athleticism. The original starting five had absolutely none, especially with Williams hobbled.
Anderson and Livingston have graded out as replacement-level players, but the simple fact that they play with enthusiasm and can get back on the fast break has vastly changed the Nets' style. Brooklyn's two best lineups so far this year have no true power forward, unless you count Mirza Teletovic.
The numbers back it up, but the difference is really the eye test. Brooklyn was a miserable team to watch, even in wins, early in the season. Now, with lineups that encourage spacing and don't rely quite as heavily on plodding, isolation play -- and that can't defend a lick -- the Nets are ready to make a push. Whether Garnett and Livingston can hold up over the long haul is now the team's biggest question mark.