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Lichtenstein: Nets' Larkin Hits Back At Doubters With Play Off Bench

By Steve Lichtenstein
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Shane Larkin is not very highly regarded among many in NBA circles.

Brooklyn is the 23-year old backup point guard's third stop in as many years after being selected 18th overall in the 2013 draft by Atlanta (his rights were traded to Dallas on draft night). The Knicks acquired him prior to last season and then let him walk away as a free agent following an unproductive campaign.

Larkin entered his first season with the Nets with a 42 percent career field-goal percentage, which included a dismal 30.5 percent efficiency from 3-point range. His straight-ahead foot speed may be above average, but he often struggles to stay in front while defending opposing point guards. And at a generously-listed 5-foot-11, Larkin tends to get bullied down low by bigger players.

One NBA scout I talked to called him "a D-League player."

Knicks president Phil Jackson got specific in an unprovoked diss that generated headlines after Brooklyn general manager Billy King signed Larkin to a two-year, $3 million contract over the summer. Jackson told ESPN's Charley Rosen that "another problem is that (Larkin) can't control the ball because he has such tiny hands."

For Brooklyn head coach Lionel Hollins, however, the Nets so far have been in pretty good hands when they've turned to Larkin off the bench.

Over the Nets' last 11 games, including Tuesday's 94-91 victory over visiting Phoenix, Larkin has averaged 9 points in 20 minutes while shooting 51.2 percent from the floor, including a scorching 60 percent from 3-point land.

Against the Suns, Larkin played a season-high 30 minutes and posted a healthy stat line of 11 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. Even more impressive, he did not commit a turnover.

"It was about matchups, mainly," Hollins said, referring to how he needed more of Larkin to keep up with the Suns' dual point guard lineup of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. "All day today that's all I was thinking about was what lineups would I use to try to match up and I finally came to my mindset that it was going to be Shane and Jarrett (Jack) together."

"(The Suns) play a lot of small ball," Larkin added. "At shootaround today, we did a lot of small-ball lineup type of stuff and it worked out pretty good."

Larkin played the entire fourth quarter and was all over the floor, which helped the Nets overcome a nine-point deficit. He stuck his nose in among the trees to grab rebounds and loose balls. Between his 6 points and 4 assists, he was involved in 14 of the Nets' 24 points in the frame.

For the game, Brooklyn's bench outscored Phoenix's 35-20, which was an oddity in itself.

"Phoenix's bench had been dominating people," Hollins said. "I was looking at the box scores for the last three or four games and they were getting anywhere from 35 to 51 points out of their bench. So to slow their bench down tonight was huge."

On the other hand, Brooklyn's reserves outside of Larkin had not been so effective, which is a big reason why the Nets entered Tuesday with a wretched 4-13 record.

The Nets' starting five of Jack, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson entered Tuesday with the second-best net rating in the league for five-man units that have played over 150 minutes -- plus-12.5 points per 100 possessions.

Unfortunately, Hollins can't play that grouping for entire games. When one of them was pulled, those advantages would usually disappear.

Most often it has been Hollis-Jefferson who has had to sit and watch his teammates falter down the stretch of games. The energetic rookie does not have Hollins' full faith and credit despite a defensive skill set that is far and away above all other options.

It could be Hollis-Jefferson's still-developing offensive game, Hollins' fear of potential mental miscues due to inexperience, or it could just be Hollins' stubbornness that makes him prefer the likes of Bojan Bogdanovich and/or Wayne Ellington during crunch time.

In the 67 minutes Bogdanovich has played with the other four starters, the team's net rating is minus-12.7 points per 100 possessions. With Ellington on the floor, it is minus-13.7 points per 100 possessions in 30 minutes.

You would think, then, that in a game like Tuesday's when multiple starters didn't bring it, the Nets would be toast.

Hollis-Jefferson picked up five fouls in what maybe was his worst defensive game of the season. He struggled to contain Knight, who poured in 24 points through three quarters. Young shot a miserable 3-for-14 from the floor. Johnson had one of those mail-it-in performances with 9 points and 4 turnovers. And Jack missed all five of his field-goal attempts after halftime.

For the Nets to win a second consecutive game for the first time this season, they needed their bench to step up -- and it did.

With about four minutes remaining and the score tied at 85, Larkin drove the left lane past Bledsoe, took a bump from Suns center Alex Len, and then scored on a double-clutch scoop. On Phoenix's subsequent possession, Young blitzed Knight on a pick-and-roll and deflected the ball towards Ellington, who batted it ahead so he could run into a breakaway layup that put the Nets ahead by four.

The Nets denied the Suns a shot at a game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds and now head to Madison Square Garden for a showdown with the Knicks on Friday feeling like they may have turned a corner.

With Larkin ready to provide his new team with a helping hand in front of one of his biggest doubters.

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

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