New York Basketball is back! Erm, well, that might be a stretch. Although the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks are both playing well at this point in time. The Nets are a playoff lock, but the Knicks are still on the outside looking in. The Knicks are only one game out of the eight spot, so they really need to win this one. To get a better idea of what to expect out of the reborn Nets I brought in Tom Lorenzo of Nets Daily to preview tonight’s game.
Things are going pretty well in Brooklyn in 2014. What’s been the biggest reason(s) for their turnaround? Is it somewhat concerning that the team is playing this well without Brook Lopez?
Tom: Most of it has to do with the team getting a chance to gel, get comfortable playing with each other. It also has to do with Jason Kidd finding the right system that works best with the personnel he has. I don’t think anyone thought this team would or even could play as poorly as they did at the start of the season, but when you have so many new pieces, are dealing with a number of injuries and have a coach who has yet to define his own style and system, it was expected that they’d struggle. Not to the point where they’d go 10-22, but this whole “process,” as Kidd likes to call it, just needed some time to work itself out.
I don’t think they’re necessarily concerned about the team playing well without Lopez, simply because, first, his health going forward will continue to be an issue and you can’t build a team or a system around a guy who can’t stay healthy, and, secondly, if he does stay healthy they now have a movable piece. So, there doesn’t seem to be a great concern, but I think that’s because they have high expectations for Lopez and, well, he’s an All-Star talent. The can coach the system to fit his skill set.
Since coming over from the Sacramento Kings in a trade earlier this season Marcus Thornton has blossomed with the Nets. He’s jacking up 7.8 threes per 36 minutes, but he’s making them at a 38 percent clip. How has head coach Jason Kidd been able to turn a gunner like Thornton into an efficient player with the Nets? Do you see it lasting?
Tom: Thornton has always been a boom or bust guy, but it just happened to turn out that in his final year-plus with the Kings he was more bust than boom. I also think the spread system, the Nets are hitting a bunch of threes lately and really the team is playing more to Thornton’s strengths — not necessarily intentionally, but he’s fitting in to Kidd’s small-ball, outside-shooting system.
A lot of analysts cite Kevin Garnett’s move to the 5 as a big reason for the Nets improvement in 2014 along with Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko playing the 4. Has the Nets “small ball” adjustment been as crucial as it appears to have been?
Tom: Funny thing is, Kevin Garnett has missed the team’s last month, and they’ve gone 13-4 without him. Mason Plumlee has been a huge boon for the Nets, especially with what he brings as an athletic big. Garnett was (and is) supposed to be the defensive anchor for this team, but the Nets have played their best defense with Paul Pierce at the ‘4’ and Plumlee at the ‘5.’ That’s not to say they don’t miss Garnett, but they haven’t missed a beat without him.
You could make the case the Nets have one of the deepest benches in the league. Who would you say has been the most vital off the bench for Kidd? Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche, Mirza Teletovic or even Mason Plumlee?
Tom: Livingston has moved to the starting lineup with Brook Lopez out, with Joe Johnson sliding to the ‘3’ and Pierce to the ‘4,’ and Plumlee has been starting at the ‘5’ with Garnett out, so they don’t necessarily feel like bench players — especially not Livingston, who will continue to start even when Garnett comes back, while Plumlee will move back to the bench. I think the most important player, actually, has been Andrei Kirilenko. He’s been battling injuries, too, but when he’s healthy the Nets are at their best. He doesn’t show up in the box score, but he allows for the Nets to play longer and quicker on both ends of the floor, and he’s one of the best on- and off-the-ball defenders in the game. I think he’s the most important player off the bench, with Andray Blatche and what he brings offensively coming in at a close second.
Who ultimately wins tonight and why?
Tom: To be honest, I think the Knicks have a better shot at winning. The Nets are coming off a back-to-back set, playing the Rockets on Tuesday night, they are shorthanded, and playing on the road. Also, the game means more to the Knicks than it does to the Nets, who are playoff-bound. So, I guess I think the Knicks are going to win this one, but I do think it will be close.