By Steve Lichtenstein
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No way the Nets win Monday night's game had it been played two weeks ago.
Those Nets were a dying patient—old, slow and primed for burial even amongst the dreck that is the Eastern Conference.
For them to go out and score 110 points against the NBA-leading Warriors, the league's top defensive team in terms of points per 100 possessions? Hold Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to 5-of-20 shooting from the floor through three quarters (before Curry went off for 18 fourth-quarter points to set up a fantastic finish)? Make enough plays in the end game to scrape by with a 110-108 victory at a raucous sold-out Barclays Center?
Who are these guys?
Turns out that there's nothing like a dose of athleticism to cure all that ails an NBA team. Anyone who hasn't seen the Nets since before the All-Star break will surely now find them unrecognizable.
"The chemistry's better," said Nets coach Lionel Hollins of the change in his team since the break. "We're playing more for each other. We've bought into our roles and the system that we're running is better. We've been competing the last six games (during which the Nets have gone 4-2) and had a chance to win each one of them."
Granted, the Nets have run into a little luck in their last two games, including their 104-94 victory in Dallas on Saturday that concluded their eight-game circus road trip. The Mavs were down two starters in Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons while Golden State was playing its fifth game in seven days--an absurdity the league must address with the union in short order.
Their good fortune also extends to their health—particularly that of point guard Deron Williams, who has taken advantage of the extended rest period to ratchet up his game. D-Will has even found his three-point stroke, converting on 8-of-his-last-13 attempts from deep.
Still, there's no denying that it's been the Nets' recent injection of athleticism into their rotation--the trade for forward Thaddeus Young by general manager Billy King and Hollins' insertion of rookie guard Markel Brown into the starting five—that has not only made this once-moribund team more competitive against the league's elite, but also far more entertaining to watch.
I wasn't a believer that the Young-for-Kevin Garnett swap would be a big game-changer when King pulled the trigger at the February 19 trade deadline. I figured that whatever additional interior scoring Young would provide would be offset by the loss of KG's defensive presence and rebounding.
So far Young has endeared himself to the Barclays faithful with big-time shot-making and hustle plays since his arrival.
Like the second-quarter sequence on Monday when Young chased down Justin Holiday on a breakaway to force a missed layup and then immediately raced back to the offensive end. Young then received the ball 25 feet out and dribbled into a floater in the paint to give the Nets a nine-point lead.
Young finished with 14 points, four rebounds, four assists, and two steals. In his six games as a Net, he has scored 81 points in 135 minutes. Since the trade, the Nets as a team have been far more productive in the paint, averaging close to 52 points per game inside—about a 10-point improvement.
The only disappointment has been why Young hasn't played more. In Minnesota, Young averaged about 33 minutes per game, some 11 minutes more than he's been getting in Brooklyn.
Hollins has been reluctant to use Young late in games, possibly because Young still isn't fully integrated into the Nets' system.
"I don't think I'm anywhere near 100 percent yet," said Young prior to his Brooklyn debut on how much he has mastered Hollins' playbook. "Some of the calls are a little bit different (from Minnesota). For what they're telling me, there's a bunch more plays."
I'm also curious why we aren't seeing more of Brown, who has become the wing defensive stopper I've been begging the Nets to get all season.
Brown has been called on to guard, in succession, James Harden, Monta Ellis and Curry. Using his wingspan, quickness, and 43.5 inch vertical leap, Brown has looked nothing like a typical second-round draft choice.
"I feel like I can guard anyone," said Brown, who isn't as cocky as that quip sounds. "I like to stay solid on defense--don't reach too much, don't gamble too much, and try to keep them in front."
Though there have been a few rookie mistakes and a bunch of anti-rookie calls by refs more inclined to give the League's stars breaks, Brown has acquitted himself well--and far better than Bojan Bogdanovich or Sergey Karasev ever did.
Yet Brown sat for the latter two-thirds of the fourth quarter while Curry willed the Warriors back from a 10-point deficit with four minutes left to tie a game they had no business even being in--to the delight of the vast majority of the crowd that made the arena feel like a Golden State home game some 3,000 miles away from their home.
Hollins has been persistent in pairing point guards Deron Williams and Jarrett Jack in crunch time, no matter how poorly the net points-per-possession analytics read.
I'm sure that when Jack knocked down that contested mid-range jumper over Curry with 1.1 seconds remaining to give the Nets their margin of victory, Hollins felt vindicated.
Never mind that the same play—the 1-5 pick-and-roll--failed on multiple possessions prior to Jack's third big-time shot in the Nets last three home games. The Nets turned the ball over three times over the final 2:11 before Brooklyn was granted a reprieve when Warriors center Andrew Bogut threw a pass out of bounds with 20 seconds left.
Despite these nitpicks, the Nets have come a long way from the slog-fests that they recently served as NBA entertainment. They now play at a quicker pace, they're more efficient from three-point range, and, above all, they have met challenges put forth by teams that are above them in the standings.
Whether this will ultimately lead them out of the quagmire at the bottom of the Eastern Conference remains to be seen. The Nets are a whisker ahead of Indiana for the eighth and final playoff seed, but a two-game losing streak could potentially drop them all the way down to 11th.
That makes Charlotte's visit to the Barclays Center on Wednesday a match with fairly large playoff implications.
And who would have predicted that a mere two weeks ago, when the Nets were looking more like a team in need of a funeral than one that is now exponentially more interesting.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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