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Paul Flannery | March 9, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

For Kevin Garnett and the Nets, a chance to do something special

For Kevin Garnett and the Nets, a chance to do something special

Way back in 2012, as the Boston Celtics were hovering around .500 and going nowhere fast, Doc Rivers went to Kevin Garnett and asked him to play the five. "Asked" is probably the wrong word. KG once likened playing for Doc to living in Cuba under Fidel Castro. But Garnett ultimately complied and the rejuvenated Celtics went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, where they scared the hell out of the Miami Heat and inspired one of LeBron James’ greatest performances.

What most people don’t remember about that run was there was another shakeup that season, which kickstarted the Celtics back into playoff contention. The short version: With Ray Allen injured and Mickael Pietrus dealing with a scary concussion, Rivers turned to young Avery Bradley as his fifth starter. That lineup ran roughshod over the rest of the league, battering opponents by almost 20 points per 100 possessions and going 12-4 as a starting unit.

It didn’t last. Bradley was sidelined by a shoulder injury and Allen worked his way back into the starting lineup midway through the postseason run. The Celtics have since spent the better part of two years wondering if Rondo and Bradley can form a dynamic backcourt, or if the other elements -- namely KG and Paul Pierce -- marked this experiment as just a fascinating moment in time. (Signs points to the latter, but injuries have kept that hope alive, however faintly.)

There’s design -- moving KG to the five had been on the table since at least the beginning of that season -- and there’s luck -- Bradley was the backup choice to Pietrus. That Celtics team rode both to an unlikely finish, aided by Philadelphia’s first-round upset over Chicago after Derrick Rose tore his ACL.

All of which brings us to the Brooklyn Nets, who have won 20 of 29 games since the start of the new year and put together the third-best record in the league during that stretch behind only the Rockets and Clippers. There are eerie similarities between the two squads, starting with those familiar ex-Celtics. Desperation, as they found out, sometimes leads to the best kind of innovation.

When Brook Lopez had season-ending surgery on his broken right foot, the Nets were 9-17 and in serious trouble. Their offense was uninspired and their defense was a mess. They responded to the adversity by getting blown out at home by the Pacers and Bulls, with the latter coming on Christmas Day in a performance so awful it may as well have been a wake.

That’s around the time the Nets moved Garnett to the five and lo and behold, they started winning games. They won 10 out of 11 to start the new year, including victories over the Thunder, Warriors and Heat. Garnett was playing fewer minutes than he did in his Boston days, but his impact was obvious. Since January 1, the Nets have allowed 101.5 points per 100 possessions per, which ranks No. 6 over that timeframe.

Like those Celtics teams of yesterday, the rest of their four factor numbers range from meh to atrocious. It’s the defense, stupid. Always the defense.

And yet, there’s something else happening here. Garnett has missed time with back spasms and the Nets keep winning games. Because of all their injuries, searching through Brooklyn’s five-man lineup data is a wasted exercise. They have only two lineups that have been on the court for more than 100 minutes all season. But set the parameters at four players and a whole new world opens up.

Here’s the biggest takeaway: When the Nets play small with Pierce at the four they’ve been very, very good. Their most effective four-man combination features Pierce with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston. That group is outscoring opponents by better than 17 points per 100 possessions and has been a boon for Pierce, who is looking more and more like the player he was at the end of his Boston tenure.

In an overall sense, this has been a bit of a down season for Pierce, which was to be expected. After all, he doesn’t have to carry the offense every night like he did in Boston. His numbers are down across the board, even when adjusted to a per-minute basis. But over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a return to form.

Pierce has always been more of a basketball savant than people generally recognize. He’s been so consistent for so long that his adjustments tend to go unnoticed, even as his athleticism began to wane. His footwork is impeccable and he became a more efficient shooter and a better playmaker in Boston during his final years in green. Just because he doesn’t have to do all those things in Brooklyn, doesn’t mean that he’s not capable of doing them anymore.

The biggest difference is that he doesn’t have to do those things all the time in part because the Nets suddenly have depth behind their stash of aging stars. Andray Blatche has been amazing. Mason Plumlee has quietly put together a better rookie year than any of the big men drafted ahead of him. Andrei Kirilenko’s return helped immeasurably and Livingston is one of the league’s best stories. The additions of Marcus Thornton and Jason Collins have injected a needed jolt of athleticism and savvy, respectively.

Through all of that the Nets have put themselves into position to do something this postseason. They’re currently on track to finish sixth, which would give them a first round matchup against the inexperienced Raptors. A possible second-round date with LeBron and the Heat would be fascinating, if not ultimately competitive.

Of course, they could also lose in the first round. When they lose they tend to lose badly, like their performance in Boston on Friday night when they took 27 threes and missed 24 of them.

That was exactly the line the Celtics walked their last few years together. When everything fell into place, they were able to remind everyone of their greatness. When it didn’t, they looked ancient and almost comically inept. But there’s a chance to accomplish something special, and that’s all that should have been expected from the Nets this season.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

The operative words around the Golden State Warriors these days: We’ll see.

Have they turned a corner from their month-long habit of alternating impressive wins with crushing losses? We’ll see. Will their second unit, bolstered by the addition of Steve Blake and the return of injured players like Jermaine O’Neal, develop into a deep and effective rotation? We’ll see. When it was suggested to someone that they could be a dangerous opponent come playoff time, there came that same response. We’ll see.

From afar, everything seems fine. The Warriors are on track to win 50-something games, and while their playoff positioning is far from secure, they close the season playing 13 of their final 20 games in Oracle Arena.

Perhaps it’s because heightened expectations have hung around this team for most of the season that the Warriors are taking a more measured approach to the hype. Thanks to their galvanizing playoff run last season and the free agent addition of Andre Iguodala, the Warriors began the season as a darkhorse contender. (I picked them to reach the Finals, for whatever that’s worth.) Yet this has been anything but a straight path.

They started hot but slumped a bit in November after Iguodala missed a dozen games with an injured hamstring. They then won 10 straight from December through January including the first six games of a road trip and the buzz started all over again. Then they were hit with another brace of injuries and ineffective play, particularly from their depleted second unit.

"I would say at (14) games over .500 I don’t know if that’s ‘a little streaky,’" Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "We’re playing against a tough schedule and we’ve had our highs and lows. At the end of the day when you look at the injuries that we’ve had -- it’s been documented -- that’s going to happen. I love where we are and I love the fact that we’re playing good basketball as we dwindle down toward the end of this season. The great thing is we’ve got some experience. Last year we had no experience. It was brand new to all of us. This year we are totally aware of what to expect and how to handle our business."

Jackson has come under criticism from fans and some corners of the Bay Area media for his strategies, his rotations and just about anything else you can name. In a conversation with San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami around the All-Star break, Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob suggested that Jackson should be feeling pressure because of expectations both external and internal.

But Jackson and the Warriors have steadied themselves and seem to be back on an upward arc, going 7-2 since the All-Star break and closing out their last long road trip of the season with impressive wins over Indiana and Boston.

It’s interesting that while the Warriors are being cautious, others have been far more effusive in their praise. Take Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who watched his team get eviscerated on its home floor by Golden State on Wednesday night.

"It’s a different team than I watched on film in January that we were getting ready to play," Stevens said. "Even though they had come off of some of those wins in the East I thought that their depth on their bench probably wasn’t quite as good as it is now. And they’re really rolling and playing at a high level."

After beating the Pacers earlier in the week on a last-second shot by Klay Thompson, the Warriors emphasized finishing their road trip on a positive note in Boston instead of falling back into that familiar trap. In some ways, their 20-point win over the Celtics was just as important as winning in Indianapolis.

"This win validates (the Pacer game) and we wanted to finish strong and we had a lot of reasons not to as far as back to back playing a hard fought game last night but we responded the best way we could," Thompson said. "Especially on the defensive end."

It’s that last part that gives the Warriors legitimacy. Golden State has quietly become one of the better defensive outfits in the league, ranking third in points allowed per 100 possessions, per You don’t often think defense in regards to the Warriors, but this has been a weird team.

Steph Curry has taken another step toward superstardom and the starting five scores better than 123 points per 100 possessions per, but their spotty bench play leaves their offense only a little better than league average when adjusted for pace. Iguodala’s per-game numbers are down, but he and Andrew Bogut do most of their work on the defensive end and their offensive contributions have been efficient. David Lee, who gives away about as much as he adds, remains as polarizing as ever.

Thompson has only improved around the margins and Harrison Barnes has taken a massive step backward. Unheralded Draymond Green has improved the most among Golden State’s next wave. Oddly, or maybe fittingly, it’s been 35-year-old Jermaine O’Neal who’s given the Warriors a huge boost down the stretch with some vintage performances.

So, we left it up to the guy who’s been around the league for more than half his life to put the Warriors into context. Take it away, J.O.

"The only regret that I’ve had in my career is that tomorrow is never guaranteed." -Jermaine O'Neal

"It reminds me a lot of my Indiana team," O’Neal said. "We’re very deep. The only difference is the aggression we played with in Indy versus this one. We’re very talented. We get along really well. We have all the tools to win it all. We just have to get better with our mentality and how we approach the game. We don’t have very many problems getting up and performing against some of the league’s best. Then we play some of the league’s bottom tier teams, we struggle with that."

O’Neal has enjoyed his role as team’s elder statesman and he didn’t mind sharing his greatest bit of learned wisdom that he passes along to his younger teammates.

"The only regret that I’ve had in my career is that tomorrow is never guaranteed," O’Neal said. "You’re young, you’re talented and if you don’t win it all this year there’s always next year. Things change. If you’ve got an opportunity to win and win now you have to take advantage of it."

We’ll see.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Suns at Clippers

Goran Dragic is what happens when a player’s talent comes into its own at the same time he finds a system and teammates that fit him perfectly. Dragic made himself into a good player the last few years, but put him in Jeff Hornacek’s up-tempo system with a pick and roll partner like Channing Frye and he’s become one of the best players in the league.

TUESDAY Blazers at Grizzlies

It’s the get-it-and-go Rip City Blazers against the Grit ‘n Grind Grizzlies. Hipster hoops versus old school ball. Sub Pop versus Stax. It’s an interesting matchup of complete opposites is what I’m saying.

WEDNESDAY Nets at Heat

Every year it’s the same thing. Defending champ coasts through January winning enough games to ensure a high seed but having enough breakdowns to arouse suspicion. When the champ fails to hit the panic button quickly enough, we wonder if they’re vulnerable. Now it’s March and the Heat are threatening to take back the top seed. Maybe they know what they’re doing.

THURSDAY Rockets at Bulls

We can use metrics to quantify Joakim Noah. He’s an excellent rebounder and a terrific passer who is more integral to the Bulls’ offense than generally acknowledged. We can use all those numbers to make the case that he’s a very good player who’s underrated by the general public. What the numbers don’t show is that when the Bulls had a chance to pack it in and feel sorry for themselves after Derrick Rose went down with a knee injury and Luol Deng was traded, Noah took it upon himself to make sure that didn’t happen.

FRIDAY Timberwolves at Bobcats

The Bobcats have taken a lot of grief for getting torched by Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, but let’s take a step back and acknowledge the club’s defensive improvement under first-year coach Steve Clifford. Last season, the Cats ranked last in defensive rating. This year they’re up to sixth per and have the best defensive rebounding team in the league. Is there a single Charlotte player that will merit consideration for the All-Defensive team? Probably not, which speaks to a strong system and players who are executing it to the best of their abilities. So watch Kevin Love go for 50 in this game.

SATURDAY Nuggets at Hawks

Let’s take a moment to appreciate Kenneth Faried, who plays his ass off every night for a team that has lost 11 of 12 and seems headed down a very dark path. Contracts and economics being what they are, Faried is one of Denver’s more attractive pieces for the inevitable rebuilding project that will probably start this offseason. Seems like he’d be a guy you’d want to keep around.

SUNDAY Rockets at Heat

Patrick Beverley is a pain. He plays defense like his job depends on it, which it does, and he never seems to take plays off. He hounds opponents full court and sticks with his man through screens in the pick and roll. He fearlessly guarded LeBron James whenever the occasion called for it last week and apparently talked so much trash that Heat enforcer Udonis Haslem told him to chill out. Keep being you, Patrick Beverley.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

In January we all gave Kevin Durant the Most Valuable Player. At the All-Star break we acknowledged that LeBron James still had a chance. Now that’s it March, the MVP race looks like a dead heat. Here’s an updated top five.

1. Kevin Durant: In 26 games without Russell Westbrook, Durant averaged 35 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists and the Thunder went 19-7. KD didn’t just load up against bad teams either. The Thunder went 7-1 against Houston, Portland, Golden State, San Antonio and Miami with the lone loss coming against the Blazers (Durant had 37 and 14 in that one). He went off for 54 points against the Warriors and had a sublime 33-7-5 line against the Heat. Durant also has a very slight statistical edge over LeBron. Very slight.

2. LeBron James: It’s a little unfair to cherry pick the handful of games that Dwyane Wade has sat out this season because they’ve often come on the end of back-to-backs and the circumstances are much different. OKC had to adjust the way they play without Westbrook, while the Heat just plug and play without Wade. As it is, LeBron’s numbers are similar to Durant’s and he’s a better defender. KD still gets the slight edge because of his work without Westbook, but this race isn’t over yet.

3. Dwight Howard: I enjoy a good thinkpiece as much as the next fella, but people are making this too hard on themselves. Howard is not the same dominant player he was in Orlando when he took an average supporting cast that lacked a certified No. 2 star to the NBA Finals, but the Rockets don’t need him to be that guy. As our Drew Garrison pointed out, they’ve learned how to utilize his strengths to unleash their other weapons. And defensively, Howard is still a force. He’s the best two-way center in the game for a team that has arguably been the best in the West since January.

4. Blake Griffin: At some point the narrative will catch up to the reality that Griffin is a fully-formed player with varied offensive skills. Still just 24 years old, Griffin has improved his range, making almost 40 percent of his shots from 16 feet and out, while his free throw percentage is up to a respectable 70 percent. What makes Griffin truly stand out this season is the stretch of 18 games when Chris Paul was out of the lineup. Griffin averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists and the Clippers went 12-6 to stay in the race.

5. Paul George: In a span of 18 months, Paul George has gone from underrated to overrated and back through the spin cycle once again. His early-season shooting numbers were never sustainable, but he’s regressed mightily over the last few months to the point where people are starting to question if he ever belonged in this conversation in the first place. He does. You can’t say defense is half the game and discount George’s play on that end of the floor for the best defense in the league. His offensive game is a work in progress, but it’s his defense that gets him this spot combined with his overall improvement.

*** Apologies to Steph Curry, Kevin Love, Goran Dragic, Joakim Noah and the San Antonio Spurs. You’re all great too.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Joakim Noah keeps Bulls afloat

Prada’s Pictures is back with a deeper appreciation of Joakim Noah. As Prada points out, Noah’s passing is even better than you think.

Bradley Beal Q&A

Holly MacKenzie talks to Bradley Beal about basketball, his diet and his family in this revealing Q+A.

D-League As NCAA Killer

There’s a lot of talk about the D-League these days thanks to Mark Cuban, who wants to know why the developmental league shouldn’t put the NCAA out of business. Tom Ziller explores that topic in The Hook.

Paul George's return to Earth

Kevin Zimmerman crunched the numbers to get to the root of Paul George’s struggles since the new year and concludes that the Pacers might be asking him to do too much.

Drive & Kick

Have you heard the rumor that the draft may just be a lot of hype? We talked to the great Jonathan Givony from Draft Express for this week’s Drive & Kick, who offers a more measured perspective.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.’ And I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them." -- Gregg Popovich in a fascinating exchange with Jeff McDonald from the San Antonio Express-News.

Reaction: Pop is the platonic ideal of a pro coach. He gives his team the blueprint, instills a sense of purpose and discipline and then leaves it up to them to figure it out. It helps that he has superior talent, but he’s essentially created a socialist utopia in San Antonio.

"Being on opposing teams, other guys know that, too. You’re on the bench and you see him walking past, and you’re like, ‘Yo, are his shoelaces wrapped around his calves?’" -- Drew Gooden telling the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg way more about Andre Miller’s shoelaces than you ever thought you needed to know.

Reaction: For real, this Steinberg gem is fascinating, especially the part about how Miller wears his socks. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s some next-level thinking happening here.

"I was inefficient when I was here. I’m not anymore. I was when I was here." -- Rudy Gay to Toronto reporters.

Reaction: Rudy’s pretty much been inefficient his entire career, but props to him for finding salvation in Sacramento.

"The thing I hate, to be honest with you, is that losing don’t really hurt to a lot of our guys. People don’t take it personal, and if you don’t, people will beat you every night. Because everybody needs a win, no matter if you’re on a winning streak or losing streak." -- Detroit guard Chauncey Billups to Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News.

Reaction: Which team is the bigger mess: the Knicks or the Pistons? I’m going with Detroit because while New York’s issues were predictable, the Pistons never assembled anything close to a coherent plan with their roster this season.

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

Sad young Knicks fan

Join the Knicks front office for this kid's sake, Phil.

LeBron James

One of the thousand or so field goals LeBron made on his way to a career high 61.

J.R. Smith to Amare Stoudemire

Hey, that's fun!

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editors: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.