Monday, April 10, 2006

Here Come The Nets
By Ben Valentine

About three weeks ago the Nets were middling around the Atlantic Division. They were just a couple of games ahead of the dreadful 76’ers for the division lead and were basically giving up as many points as they were scoring. In other words, they were at best, a mediocre team.

Then something strange happened. The Nets started winning. And they didn’t stop. The Pistons, Heat, Cavaliers, Mavericks and Suns all fell to the suddenly blazing team from Jersey. Finally, Saturday, an equally scorching Lebron James went off in the fourth quarter and stopped the winning streak at fourteen. Not to worry however; the Nets went back to work and stomped the Bucks on Sunday behind a Jason Kidd triple double.

The question has been asked across NBA circles: where did this come from? How did a team that was playing mediocre basketball suddenly improve so drastically, especially after supposedly weakening a position (power forward/center) they had little depth in at the trade deadline?

It starts on the defensive end with Jersey, and has been one of the impressive things about the run. The Nets were routinely holding opponents in the run under 80 points. The high flying Suns were completely shut down; they scored 72 points and reigning MVP Steve Nash was held scoreless. After the way point guards were lighting up the Nets earlier in the season that came as a surprise. But it is something that was a common place during the Nets streak; opposing point guards did not go off like they had earlier. Chaucey Billups, who had averaged 24.3 points in the first three games against the Nets this year, had nine in their last match up.

Of course, most say Kidd, who has two triple doubles and two double doubles in his last four games, has stepped up on the defensive end. I’m not sure whether or not I’m willing to believe an aging point guard on surgically repaired knees can make such a drastic improvement. The change for the Nets is in their front court, where stability and the emergence of Nenad Krstic have led to improved play on both ends of the floor.

When the Nets dealt away Marc Jackson at the trade deadline, it didn’t seem to make much sense. The team was lacking in size; with only Krstic providing adequate play. Jason Collins had been battling injuries and Cliff Robinson dealing inconsistent minutes. Once Jackson was dealt, Robinson and Collins’ rotation became solidified and both have responded with improved play. Collins is not a very consistent offensive player, but defensively he provides size and intimidation as a true seven footer. Robinson doesn’t bring much in the post offensively, but he is an adequate defender. In addition he provides insurance and extra fouls, allowing him, Collins and Krstic to be more aggressive in challenging penetrating guards.

But perhaps the key to the Nets re-emergence and their season is guy I dubbed as such back before it all began. Nenad Krstic started off slowly this year, averaging 12.7 points and 5.6 boards through February. Those numbers are okay, but many expected this to be a breakthrough year for the second year center. March may have been the month where it happened; he averaged 15.2 points and 8.2 boards. Those aren’t bad numbers for the Nets’ fourth offensive option. Krstic has been playing with more confidence on both ends. He is looking for his shot and going inside more than he did earlier. Defensively he is playing more aggressively. Krstic gives the Nets their sought after low post presence, but also presents match up problems. He’s quick for a seven footer while also possessing a good mid range jumper. Krstic adds a greater versatility to the Nets offense, making it even harder to guard a team that already has Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson.

Of course, the Nets are not as good as they’ve played in this recent run. So how good are they? Right now, they should be considered the second best team in the East and even if they have to go on the road in a second round match up, the Nets probably would be favored over Miami. (Jersey is 3-1 with three straight wins over the Heat) They aren’t in Detroit’s league right now, but it’s doubtful anyone in the East is.

Still, you’d figure the Nets could give Detroit a good series. They are 2-2 against them this year. They may have finally developed a real chemistry between the starters, which could make them scary for any team, even the vaunted Pistons. And in a seven game series, anything is possible.

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