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Nets Training Camp Primer: Hollins Wants Team To Back Up Toughness Talk

By Steve Lichtenstein
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Ah, the annual rites of autumn in New York: The evenings get a little more brisk, the leaves get a little more color and the Brooklyn Nets talk about getting a lot tougher.

In the Nets' first two seasons following their move from New Jersey, it's been too much talk and not enough grit on the court to match the borough's reputation, let alone seriously challenging for an NBA title.  The Nets were bounced in the playoffs after one and two rounds, respectively.

So it was no surprise that when asked at Nets' Media Day on Friday what he needed to focus on at this training camp, coach Lionel Hollins said, "I'd like us to be tougher."

"I'd like us to be more aggressive and compete harder every moment they are on the court," Hollins elaborated. "I want them to be tougher mentally. That's the foundation we're going to try to lay right off the bat."

Hollins may be the Nets' fourth head coach -- and third in about 18 months -- since the move, but I believe he has the best shot of finally delivering on that promise.

A no-nonsense, old-school coach who speaks with intelligence and wit, Hollins brings with him a recipe that proved successful when he led Memphis to the 2013 Western Conference Finals.

There will be no shortcuts. Hollins' response to how he would accomplish this goal was "practice, practice, practice."

"We're going to put them in stressful situations in practice," said Hollins. "We're going to push them."

This as opposed to "he who shall not be named," the former coach whose No. 5 jersey still hangs high at the Nets' practice facility and at Barclays Center.

Jason Kidd and his more laissez-faire style are in Milwaukee now, and those players returning to the Nets this season understand there's a new sheriff in town.

"I've heard (Hollins) loves practice," said clutch forward Joe Johnson.  "Under Jason we practiced, but not really."

To be fair, this Nets iteration is a bit younger and needs more molding than last year's.  Plus, Kidd was rightfully concerned with overburdening his brittle cast in sessions that didn't count in the standings.

Still, Hollins' teams have been known for their work ethic.

"I want us to be a team that when we shoot 36 percent, we still win the game," Hollins said. "I want a team that can grind it out and win no matter the circumstances."

The Nets' biggest impediment to playing at that standard last season was their pathetic rebounding rate.  Even prior to the season-ending injury to All-Star center Brook Lopez, the Nets were regularly pounded on the boards.

Lopez said he's had discussions with Hollins in which rebounding was a hot topic.

"It's been a matter of increasing my effort -- not just boxing out -- and going to get the rebound," said Lopez.

The Nets do have their best rebounder back from last season, though at 38 years old there are questions as to how much Kevin Garnett has left in his tank.

Despite Garnett producing career lows in every statistical category in 2013-14, the Nets swear by his off-the-court leadership.  His tutelage was partially responsible for the unexpected rise of Mason Plumlee, who parlayed a strong rookie season into a roster spot on the U.S. Men's National Team at this summer's World Cup.

Reading between Hollins' lines, Plumlee has a great shot at landing the minutes once toiled by Andray Blatche, who departed to China after no one in the NBA requested his unique services.

Hollins sees Johnson as a small forward and is looking for a guard (Alan Anderson or newcomers Jarrett Jack and Bojan Bogdanovich) to step up into the starting five.  Andrei Kirilenko and Mirza Teletovic will vie for playing time behind Johnson.

Of course, nothing good will happen in Brooklyn this year unless point guard Deron Williams is indeed fully recovered from offseason ankle procedures.  The nearly $100 million man said he is close to 100 percent, but "I feel like I'm at least 20 percent better than I was all of last year."

As I've said many times, the Nets -- no matter how much talent they bring in -- will only go as far as D-Will can take them.  He initiates the offense and the defense.  When Williams was hurting, he couldn't beat opponents off the dribble nor could he stay in front of their penetrations.  He has the ability to go off from three-point range, but not when he can't get lift on his jump shot.

Williams is also the media's whipping boy when it comes to the Nets' lack of toughness.  His failures down the stretch of the biggest games -- particularly when compared to the more humble Johnson -- have been well-documented here.  The suggestions that he was behind the resignation of Jerry Sloan in Utah and the firing of Avery Johnson as Nets coach in December of 2012 haven't helped.

Hollins had a terrific response when asked about Williams' reputation as a coach killer: "Well, I have a reputation of being a player killer."

Hollins was joking, but there is definitely a more "business-like" atmosphere at the Nets' practice facility, according to Kirilenko.

Summer vacation is over.

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

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