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Lichtenstein: Led By Livingston, Nets Proving Small Ball Is A Misnomer

By Steve Lichtenstein
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There's some irony in the credit that Nets coach Jason Kidd is receiving—and, after all the criticism he's endured for his inadequacies during his team's 10-21 start, he does deserve credit—for reconfiguring his rotation following the season-ending foot injury to center Brook Lopez to play "small-ball."

The Nets, who extended their winning streak to five games with last night's thrilling 104-95 victory in double overtime over Miami at the Barclays Center, look like a totally different team than the 2013 version.

The irony is that, except for one position, the Nets really aren't that short in stature.

Yes, Kidd has forgone starting a 'traditional" power forward by moving six-foot seven Paul Pierce, who made his living for 15 years in Boston mostly by playing out on a wing, into that slot. Against most teams, Pierce is undersized. But then again, those opponents have had their hands full trying to contain Pierce, who has gotten to the free throw line 28 times in the last five games after taking just 41 free throws in the 11 games he played in December.

As for the rest of the starters, having six-foot eleven Kevin Garnett at center instead of power forward has actually helped the Nets in the interior, as Garnett leads the NBA in defensive rebound percentage (Nets backup Reggie Evans is second, while Lopez is currently the fourth-worst center out of the 53 with the minimum playing time in this metric).

Garnett indicated in his postgame remarks that center is not his preferred position, but he has been much more like the vintage Big Ticket as the defense's anchor than when he had to worry about covering up for Lopez. And the Nets are compensating for the added wear-and-tear by giving Garnett days off and limiting his runs in the first three quarters to five-or-six minutes.

Meanwhile, six-foot seven Joe Johnson has been such a beast off post-ups lately, torching the Heat for 22 first-quarter points last night, that Miami resorted to putting Chris Bosh (a seven-footer!) on him during crunch time. Big guard, small forward—who needs a label when you're as clutch as Joe Cool?

Kidd had an opportunity to ditch this experiment when star point guard Deron Williams opted to receive platelet rich plasma and cortisone injections on his sore ankles following last week's victory over Cleveland.

Kidd instead decided to stay the course and inserted swingman Alan Anderson into the starting five. At six-foot six, Anderson is the unit's shortest member, but he often draws the toughest defensive assignment, like last night when he was initially tasked with guarding Miami's LeBron James.

But the player who played the biggest of all the small-ballers last night was point guard Shaun Livingston.

At six-foot seven and with a lengthy wingspan, Livingston's size wrecked havoc on Miami on both ends. Livingston played 51 of the 58 minutes and filled up the stat sheet with 19 points (on 6-for-11 shooting from the floor), 11 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal and 3 out-of-nowhere blocked shots.

Livingston also made the key play of the game by taking a charge to draw James' sixth foul with 36 seconds remaining in the first overtime. With the Heat also depleted by injuries to starters Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier and playing the second leg of a back-to-back, they had nothing left in the tank and were outscored, 11-4, the rest of the way.

On offense, Livingston made up for his lack of confidence in his perimeter shooting by being aggressive taking the ball into the paint. With five inches on Miami's Norris Cole, Livingston sealed the deal with a quick spin move past Cole that led to an emphatic slam dunk with 1:27 left in the second overtime.

Livingston's story is well-documented, from getting selected fourth overall straight out of high school in the 2004 NBA Draft and then, just as he was maturing into a poor-man's Magic Johnson, incurring a horrific knee injury that stole much of his athleticism.

He's been slowly working his way back and the Nets signed him over the summer with the expectation that he would back up Williams for maybe 12-15 minutes per game.

Unfortunately, the Williams Chronic-les altered the plan. With D-Will out for almost all of the latter half of November, Livingston was forced into playing starter's minutes. After a couple of solid performances, Livingston's game went south as opponents took away his penetration game and dared him to beat them from longer distances.

Williams' latest sabbatical, however, has come under the Nets' new direction. And the Nets haven't missed a beat.

That's mostly because the Nets' defensive focus is so much better than it ever was when Lopez paired with a traditional power forward. On this end, the current similarities in their heights is a huge advantage—the players have greater trust in each other that they can maintain their positioning even if they have to switch on pick-and-rolls. That's how Livingston ended up on James before he committed that offensive foul. The overall result is that the Nets are getting a little better at defending the three-point shot (though there are still too many breakdowns where Nets defenders cheat into the paint to look to help and neglect the corner three-ball) and finishing the possession with defensive rebounds.

And while the attack surely could use a player with such prolific scoring skills as Lopez, the Nets have adjusted to playing a more modern style, with the floor spread with both capable shooters and ballhandlers (as opposed to last season, when I killed then-coach Avery Johnson for the same tactic because his sources for these skills were bricklayers like Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans.)

It should also be noted that the Nets have been getting tremendous value from their bench recently. Andrei Kirilenko, who missed 26 games in 2013 due to back spasms, has been as good as advertised in terms of all the little things he does to help his team win games. Mirza Teletovic stretches the defense with his three-point shooting marksmanship. Andray Blatche, when he doesn't get too crazy trying to initiate offense 20 feet from the basket, can score in bunches. And, if Blatche doesn't have his head on straight on a given night, Kidd can always count on Evans to provide rebounding and hustle, so long as it's for a relatively short stint.

All four of those guys are listed in the program as at least six-foot eight. They are not small.

And neither is the change in the atmosphere surrounding the entire club. Kidd isn't having the Nets play small ball—just better ball.

For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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