Posts Tagged ‘Deron Williams’

Nets, Raptors need to knock down open looks

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: NBA.com: Billy King interview

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Brooklyn Nets should feel good about where they stand in their first round series with the Toronto Raptors. They got one game, were in position to win another and are home for the next two.

Game 3 is Friday in Brooklyn (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Nets went 23-4 at the Barclays Center after Christmas, and if they win their three games at home, they will move on to the conference semifinals.

The Nets haven’t shot well yet in this series, yet they’re still tied. They shot just 4-for-24 from 3-point range in Game 1 and 7-for-24 in Game 2.

When the Nets went to a smaller lineup, they became more dependent on 3-point shots. No team hit more threes after the All-Star break. So they should feel good that other things were working well enough that they were able to win Game 1 while missing 19 straight shots from beyond the arc.

The should also feel good that, though they ranked 21st in 3-point percentage on the road (34.8 percent), they ranked second at home (39.1 percent). Only the Spurs (+4.5 percent) had a bigger home-road discrepancy with their 3-point percentage. Only the Magic and Suns had a bigger home-road discrepancy in offensive efficiency.

Interestingly, it’s not the Nets’ role players, but their biggest stars who have benefited most from playing at home when it comes to 3-point shooting. Deron Williams (+10.7 percent), Joe Johnson (+9.7 percent) and Paul Pierce (+7.4) all ranked among the 15 players with the biggest home-road 3-point percentage discrepancy (among 145 who have attempted at least 75 threes both at home and on the road).

Biggest discrepancy, home vs. road 3-point percentage

Home Road
Player 3PM 3PA 3PT% 3PM 3PA 3PT% Diff.
Louis Williams 51 124 41.1% 28 107 26.2% 15.0%
Manu Ginobili 59 144 41.0% 31 114 27.2% 13.8%
Jared Dudley 53 127 41.7% 28 98 28.6% 13.2%
Hollis Thompson 37 79 46.8% 30 88 34.1% 12.7%
Ty Lawson 45 109 41.3% 27 93 29.0% 12.3%
Jeff Teague 47 123 38.2% 27 102 26.5% 11.7%
E’Twaun Moore 31 75 41.3% 26 86 30.2% 11.1%
Deron Williams 51 120 42.5% 47 148 31.8% 10.7%
Joe Johnson 92 205 44.9% 70 199 35.2% 9.7%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 79 195 40.5% 51 163 31.3% 9.2%
Kevin Durant 98 224 43.8% 94 267 35.2% 8.5%
Reggie Jackson 44 115 38.3% 39 130 30.0% 8.3%
Jose Calderon 103 210 49.0% 88 215 40.9% 8.1%
Mario Chalmers 50 119 42.0% 37 107 34.6% 7.4%
Paul Pierce 66 162 40.7% 46 138 33.3% 7.4%

Minimum 75 3-point attempts both at home and on the road

Johnson has punished the Raptors in the paint, but those three shot a combined 7-for-28 from 3-point range in Games 1 and 2. The shot Pierce had to take the lead with 25 seconds to go on Tuesday was wide open, and so have been a lot of the Nets’ attempts from 3-point range.

According to SportVU, 58 of Brooklyn’s 87 jump shots (67 percent) have been uncontested, and they’ve shot just 19-for-58 (33 percent) on those uncontested jumpers, down from 40 percent on uncontested jumpers in the regular season.

“We’ve had good looks,” Williams said Thursday. “We just got to stay confident and keep doing what we’re doing. We’re moving the ball. We’re getting open looks. We just got to knock them down.”

If a few more of those open looks went in (or just the one that Pierce missed), the Nets might have a 2-0 series lead.

The Raptors could say the same thing. Their numbers haven’t regressed quite as much as Brooklyn’s, but they shot just 10-for-39 (26 percent) from 3-point range and just 18-for-48 (38 percent) on uncontested jumpers in the first two games, according to SportVU.

And while the Nets know that they’ve been much better at home, the Raptors know that they’ve been good on the road. They allowed just 102.8 points per 100 possessions on the road, the seventh best mark in the league, and their 3-point defense was actually better on the road (34.8 percent) than it was at home (37.2 percent).

Both teams are likely more focused on other things. The Nets probably will continue to have the advantage in the turnover department and the Raptors probably will continue to have the advantage on the glass. This series may come down to who can make more open shots.

Nets’ experience takes home-court advantage from Raptors

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets vs. Raptors: Game 1

TORONTO – The Brooklyn Nets just don’t care.

They don’t care about Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri saying “F— Brooklyn!” at a pep rally before Game 1 of their first-round series.

“I don’t even know who the GM is,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said when asked about it.

They don’t care about the raucous crowd at the Air Canada Centre.

“I really feed off the emotions of the crowd, especially on the road,” Paul Pierce said after scoring nine straight points to put the game away. “It’s fun when you go on the road and [win]. I think it’s more gratifying that winning at home.”

And they don’t care about how inconsistently they played in the regular season, because the switch has been flipped.

“We’re locked in,” Pierce added. “It’s the playoffs. We understand the moment.”

The Nets came to this series with experience (about 10 times as much postseason mileage as their opponent), while the Raptors had home-court advantage. After a 94-87 victory on Saturday, Brooklyn has both.

The experience showed in the fourth-quarter execution. Down one with five minutes left, the Nets went on a 13-5 run, getting two points each from Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett before Pierce went on his run. He capped it with a vintage, back-his-man-down-to-the-elbow, turnaround jumper.

As he went to bench afterward, he told the crowd, “That’s why I’m here.”

Some shots go in and some don’t, but all six of the late buckets from the vets showed poise in the face of solid defense. On the other end of the floor, Toronto struggled to get good looks. After Brooklyn took back the lead, the Raptors were forced to rush shots late in the clock on three of their next five possessions.

Two of the Raptors’ starters with no playoff experience – DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross – shot a combined 4-for-17, dealing with early foul trouble and never getting on track.

“I thought we played a little bit as expected,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “It is our first playoff game.”

The Nets’ defense played a role in the Raptors’ struggles, closing off the middle of the floor and forcing Toronto into 19 turnovers and just 17-for-37 shooting in the paint.

In fact, until Brooklyn made its late run, both teams were scoring less than a point per possession. After making three of their first four 3-pointers, the Nets missed 19 straight. But their defense was good enough to let their experience take over down the stretch.

“You’ve been in those situations a number of times,” Pierce said. “I don’t get rattled in the fourth quarters, down the stretch of playoff settings.

“I just try to stay calm, bring my calmness to the game, and just try to influence the rest of the guys.”

Maybe Kidd was trolling Ujiri with feigned ignorance. Maybe Pierce was trolling the crowd with his post-dagger swagger. And maybe the Nets are better than a No. 6 seed with a 44-38 record.

After all, Pierce was the third option on most of those plays down the stretch, getting the ball on the weak side after Deron Williams and Johnson ran a pick-and-roll.

“I thought it was part of great execution,” Pierce said. “They took away our first and second option and I was able to fill in as a third option and make some plays.”

A guy with a championship ring and 136 games of postseason experience isn’t a bad third option to have.

Numbers preview: Raptors-Nets

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: 2013-2014 Raptors Top Plays

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – If there’s a first-round series that will help us determine the value of experience in the playoffs, it’s Toronto-Brooklyn.

The Nets have six players who have logged more than twice as many postseason minutes as anyone on the Raptors’ roster. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Jason Collins have all been to the conference finals or further.

But that won’t matter if the Nets aren’t able to slow down the Raptors’ top-10 offense, which they struggled to do in four regular-season meetings.

Here are some statistical nuggets regarding the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the Eastern Conference, as well as the four games they played against each other.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Toronto Raptors (48-34)

Pace: 94.4 (23)
OffRtg: 105.8 (9)
DefRtg: 102.4 (9)
NetRtg: +3.5 (9)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Brooklyn: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Raptors notes:

Brooklyn Nets (44-38)

Pace: 93.7 (25)
OffRtg: 104.4 (14)
DefRtg: 104.9 (19)
NetRtg: -0.6 (17)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Toronto: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Nets notes:

The matchup

Season series: 2-2 (1-1 in each location)
Pace: 92.5
TOR OffRtg: 107.0 (10th vs. BKN)
BKN OffRtg: 104.6 (9th vs. TOR)

Matchup notes:

Time for 5 players to step up in playoffs

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Everybody feels the pressure in the playoffs. No more long six-month regular seasons to work out the kinks and to solve all the problems. No more roller coaster rides of peaks and valleys.

Each player is expected to bring their full energy, their best effort every night as elimination and another long summer looms.

But for different players and for different reasons, the glare of the spotlight is even brighter as their reputations and the expectations carry a heavier burden.

Here are five players who’ll really feel the heat to step up and deliver big in the playoffs:


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks about his love for the game

Dwight Howard, Rockets — That 800-pound gorilla has been sitting on his back since July when he opted to dump the royal pedigree of the Lakers and move to Texas. Not only was Houston a better fit basketball-wise, with a young All-Star teammate James Harden waiting as a partner, but Houston, for all its heat and humidity, was a place where the media glare is not so hot. That is, until Game 1 of the playoffs when the ball goes up and Howard is expected to be the inside-dominating, rim-protecting workhorse that pulled Orlando’s wagon to the cusp of a championship in 2009. Can it really have been five years? Since that time, the similarly scrutinized LeBron James has been to The Finals three times and won back-to-back titles. While Howard has been happy, content, healthy and has led the Rockets into the top half of the tough Western Conference bracket through the regular season, now the real work begins. Will the happy-go-lucky persona that has resurfaced translate to the grit and grind and intense scrutiny of the playoffs? Will those improved free throws — all things are relative — fall when he’s being fouled intentionally and there’s a series on the line? This is his 10th NBA season, eighth as an All-Star, yet there is so much still to prove.

 


VIDEO: Paul George discusses the Pacers’ struggles

Paul George, Pacers — There’s no better up close witness and authority than James, who had this to say after George went by him like rolling thunder on his way to a slam dunk in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals: “He is going to be a great player for a long time.” There has been little reason for anyone to change that opinion during George’s fourth NBA season and second as an All-Star. The question is will he be able to step up and score abundantly and consistently enough to get the Pacers all the way to The Finals? After all, this is an Indiana team that does not exactly pile up points and, having gotten very little out of the midseason acquisitions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, will be challenged to put the ball into the hoop every time out. George forced his way into many of the MVP conversations early in the season with his raised level of play. He is also willing and able to take on the defensive challenge of matching up against the likes of James. But since the All-Star break when the fast-starting Pacers began to at least scrape against — if not run head-on into — the wall, George has not delivered consistently. Maybe it’s the physical toll. Or maybe his concentration drifts. But since the All-Star break, George has shot 50 percent only five times in 26 games and popped in 30 points just twice. Assuming that additional offense is not going to arrive out of thin air in Indy, he’ll have to get back to the production he show during the first half of the season for the Pacers to reach their stated goals.

 


VIDEO: LaMarucs Aldridge explains what Portland has to do down the stretch

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers – The question over the past several years has been whether the Blazers can put a good enough team around Aldridge to make him want to re-sign and stay to take them to the next level. But then the other side of the coin is whether the high-scoring slick forward is the one who can get them there. It’s been three years now since Brandon Roy was the main cog in the machine, Greg Oden was still a hope and Aldridge was the up-and-comer. While he’s cracked through the ceiling to become a member of the Western Conference All-Star team, it’s also true that he’s done most of his best work in the first half of seasons and faded at the finish, just like the Blazers as a whole. The old knock remains that L.A. is content to shoot turnaround jumpers rather than working to get to the hoop. He usually responds to the criticism for a time when it gets sharpest, then reverts to form and goes back to shooting jumpers. While Damian Lillard, another All-Star in the starting lineup, can hold his own among the class of elite point guards in the West, Nicolas Batum teases with his sporadic nights of all-around brilliance and Robin Lopez provides a solid defensive anchor in the middle, any success in the playoffs will require Aldridge to stand and deliver.

 


VIDEO: Are the Clippers a serious playoff threat?

Blake Griffin, Clippers — Four years into his NBA career, he’s a four-time All-Star and still only 25 years old. He’s become far less than just the sergeant at arms of Lob City, working on his mid-range jumper and the defense that had been rightly criticized in the past. New coach Doc Rivers has demanded more out of Griffin and he’s delivered, especially during the long stretch when Chris Paul was sidelined by a separated shoulder and the Clippers could have plummeted in the Western Conference playoff race and lost home court advantage in the first round. Now the challenge will be to maintain his level of improved play and concentration into the postseason. In the 2011-12 season, Griffin dropped from 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game to 19.1 and 6.9 in the playoffs. In 2012-13, he went from 18.8 and 8.3 to 13.2 and 5.5. Now even though he’s got a much improved DeAndre Jordan playing with him in the middle and Paul still orchestrating the attack as the game’s best ball handler, it is a raised level of play that’s expected and required to make the Clippers real challengers for the conference crown.

 


VIDEO: Nets poised to make noise in playoffs

Deron Williams, Nets — It’s easy — too easy — to pick on Joe Johnson and what’s left of that insane six-year, $119 million contract that he got from Atlanta and that the Nets are still paying and say he’s got to live up to it. For one, it was never going to happen. For another, Nets owner Mikhail Prokorov can probably find the loose change in his sofa cushions to pay it off and not break a sweat. On the other hand, the Nets forked over $98 million to Williams in the expectation that he would be the centerpiece to the championship construction project in Brooklyn. For all the moves that general manager Billy King did to add Johnson, trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and to sign Andrei Kirilenko, it was all predicated on Williams being the All-Star performer who was considered to be at the very top of the point guard class before everything blew up in Utah. After he started another season underperforming and underachieving due to ankle problems and eventually asking out of the starting lineup, Williams has come back since the All-Star break to lead the Nets back as they’ve made their charge up through the standings. But Prokorov did not endorse the highest payroll in the league to get the No. 5 — or even No. 4 — seed in the Eastern Conference. Williams is the one charged with the task of making sure there isn’t another first-round playoff flameout, especially at the hands of another undermanned Bulls team. There’s much to prove here.

D-Will getting stronger as Nets surge

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Deron Williams scores 28 to lead the Nets past the Suns

DALLAS – Following Sunday night’s inspired overtime win, a relieved Deron Williams walked deliberately — limped is more like it — on delicate ankles toward the Texas barbecue buffet Mavericks owner Mark Cuban provides visiting teams after games.

As Williams stacked brisket, sausage and potato salad onto his to-go plate, the Brooklyn Nets point guard, who grew up 30 minutes up the highway, had no intention of discussing his physical state. Not that that’s anything new for the ornery Williams, who’s known to grow testy when interrogated about the difficulty of playing on bad wheels.

“It is, but what can you do?” Williams said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I feel great right now. We just got a win, I’m happy about that, and I want to get one [tonight]. That’s my concern.”

The Nets, now 37-31 and just 1 1/2 games behind Atlantic Division-leading Toronto, have won 11 of 13 and seek a fifth consecutive win tonight at New Orleans (8 p.m. ET, League Pass).

With 15 points on 3-for-9 shooting and three assists, Williams didn’t play his best game in the 107-104 come-from-behind victory against the hometown team he spurned as a free agent two summers ago to instead lead the Nets out of New Jersey and into the promised land of Brooklyn. Still, Williams logged a team-high 42 minutes and stuck with it long enough to drop a 3-point dagger, the only one he’d hit on five attempts, to give the Nets, who turned to solid defense on a poor-shooting night, an eight-point cushion with 1:26 to go.

The workload was his highest since Feb. 13 and well above the 33.2 mpg Williams has averaged since returning on Jan. 20 from more ankle issues that sidelined him for nearly three weeks. In early January he received a cortisone shot and platelet-rich plasma injections in both ankles.

“I think he’s getting to where he wants to be,” teammate Joe Johnson said. “I can see that pop coming back. He’s playing aggressive, getting to the rim, so that’s what we need out of him. He’s working, man, everyday, coming in, getting his shots up, doing whatever it takes to be effective. I think he’s getting there.”

Williams, 29, might never again challenge Chris Paul for point-guard supremacy in the league, but a physically and mentally sharp Williams is the Nets’ only hope for making a long playoff run that seemed improbable, if not impossible, just two months ago. Jason Kidd, a close friend of Williams’ before he became his coach over the summer, has preached patience.

“We spent a lot of time through practices and games and spend some time together off the court,” Kidd said. “The biggest thing for an athlete or anybody at that level, health is the first thing. He wasn’t healthy and now he’s starting to get healthy. He feels good and you can see his play, he’s playing at a high level.”

With the 6-foot-3, 209-pound Williams averaging 14.9 ppg and 5.9 apg since his latest return, with Paul Pierce engaged, Joe Johnson continuing to be clutch, a boost from deadline acquisition Marcus Thornton and general good health beyond Kevin Garnett, the high-priced Nets have at least made themselves a threat to potentially challenge Indiana or Miami if they can get out of the first round.

“If you’re in the East looking at them in the first round or second round,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, “you wouldn’t want to play that team.”

Kidd, one of the league’s most durable players throughout his 19-year career, knows his team’s fortunes depend on good health. He’s done a terrific job of utilizing his bench and spreading minutes to ease wear-and-tear on the veterans he’ll lean on in the playoffs. Johnson leads the team logging just 32.8 mpg. Williams, at 32.0 mpg, by far the lowest of his nine seasons, is the only other Nets player averaging more than 30.0 mpg.

Williams said early season criticism of Kidd was unfair because of the onslaught of injuries to key players. Since Jan. 1 they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league, going 27-10.

“We’re healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” Williams said. “At the beginning of the season we were injured. We were injured and that’s tough on him [Kidd], not having guys at full strength and not having his guys out there, so that made it difficult. And now we’re still not whole, but we’re more healthy, we’re playing with more confidence.

“A lot of it is us. He was doing a great job earlier, we were just not, I don’t want to say not buying in, we were buying in, it just wasn’t clicking like it is now. It took us a little longer than we thought to learn what he wanted and get on the same page.”

Thornton keeps cooking for hot Nets

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Joe Johnson, Nets storm back to stun Mavs in overtime

DALLAS – The Brooklyn Nets delivered an improbable road win on coach Jason Kidd‘s 41st birthday, but it’s reserve guard Marcus Thornton, acquired at the trade deadline, who is the gift that keeps on giving.

Brooklyn rallied from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter, forced overtime, took control and then held on for a 107-104 win over the stunned Mavericks on their home floor. Thornton was in the thick of the Nets’ fourth consecutive victory with 20 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes. He scored 11 in the fourth quarter, dropping three of his four 3-pointers to push the Nets into the lead.

“He’s been great for us,” said Joe Johnson, who scored six of his 22 points in overtime. “I can’t even count how many games he’s been clutch for us and got us back in the game or won games for us, so we need a guy like that.”

The 6-foot-4 shooter spent the first four-plus seasons of his career on losing clubs, first playing near his hometown of Baton Rouge with the then-New Orleans Hornets and then for the past two-and-a-half seasons in Sacramento. A month ago he got the call that he’d been traded to the Nets. In 14 games since swapping the black-and-purple of Sacramento for the black-and-white of Brooklyn, Thornton has had five games of least 19 points. He had five in 46 games with the Kings.

“It’s been huge, man, it’s been huge,” Thornton said of the trade. “I’m starting to find myself again and get back to being the player that I was a couple of years ago.”

For the first time in his career Thornton, a second-round pick out of LSU by the Miami Heat in 2009, is surrounded by hardened veterans on a team that’s surging toward the playoffs. Those guys have taken to calling him “The Microwave,” the nickname synonymous with longtime Detroit Pistons sixth man Vinnie Johnson, known for coming off the bench and lighting it up.

“K.G. [Kevin Garnett], Paul [Pierce], Joe, D-Will [Deron Williams], they all have championship standards,” Thornton said. “Being able to be a sponge around them has been great.”

Thornton, who has been a serious upgrade from the man he replaced, aging sixth man Jason Terry, is averaging 12.5 ppg with Brooklyn while shooting 46.3 percent overall and 40.6 percent from beyond the arc.

“When you get in the postseason there’s going to be some nights the first five may not have it,” Johnson said. “You need a guy that can come in and get hot, and get hot quick.”

On Sunday, Thornton did just that and in the process mopped up the Mavs (42-29), who fell for the second time in overtime in their first four games of a franchise-long eight-game homestand. The loss dropped them behind Memphis and into eighth place. The race tightened at the other end, too, as Phoenix rallied to beat Minnesota and is now just one-half game behind Dallas — and even in the loss column — for the final playoff spot.

With Pierce and Williams struggling to find their range, really until the overtime period, Thornton put up eight points in the second quarter and had nine in the first half to keep the cold-shooting Nets within striking range, 48-41. He jump-started their charge in the fourth quarter with consecutive 3-pointers to open the period and whittle the deficit to 72-71. His third 3 of the final quarter came at the 7:47 mark and put Brooklyn ahead 79-75. And with 5:54 left, his putback of an Andray Blatche miss made it 81-77 in favor of the Nets.

“How we stick together through adversity” is what Thronton said most impresses him about his new club. “We could have easily gave up when we went down 12, 15 points, however many points it was in that third quarter, but everybody kept their heads up and we kept playing.”

The Nets (37-31) needed it, too, on this first stop on a three-game road trip. They win kept them 1 1/2 games out of the Atlantic Division lead after Toronto won earlier in the day.

“Yes, yes, winning, man, winning,” Thornton said. “This is my first year in five years being able to say I have a chance to go to the playoffs. That alone in itself is a blessing.”

Now Thornton returns to friendly territory as Brooklyn heads to New Orleans for another important game on Monday night.

“Go back home, see my mom and all my friends,” Thornton said. “Been getting ticket requests since two weeks ago so got to deal with that. But I love going back and playing at home.”

Almost as much as he’s loving this fresh start with the Nets.

Livingston embodies Nets’ new identity

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rachel Nichols talks with Shuan Livingston about his long path back to NBA relevance

BROOKLYN – The Brooklyn Nets are the most expensive team in NBA history, and their most important player right now is a guy making the league minimum.

The key to the Nets’ 22-9 record since Jan. 1 has been their defense, which is fifth-best in that time and has forced 19.2 turnovers per 100 possessions. No team has forced that many turnovers over a full, 82-game season since 1997-98.

The most important element of that improved Brooklyn defense is the length of Shaun Livingston, a guy who was signed to be the back-up point guard but who ranks third on the team in minutes and has started every game he’s played (he’s missed one) since … Jan. 1.

Playing small, the Nets have struggled on the glass, haven’t blocked many shots, and haven’t done a great job of keeping their opponents off the free throw line. But they’ve had defensive success due to contesting shots and forcing mistakes.

Kevin Garnett has been Brooklyn’s defensive anchor since Brook Lopez was lost for the season, but the Nets have gone 5-1 without KG in March. They’re allowing less than a point per possession because they still have backcourt length, which allows them to switch screens, help and recover and both get into the space of ball-handlers and into passing lanes.

As a 6-foot-7 point guard with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Livingston is the embodiment of Brooklyn’s new identity. He can smother opposing guards and switch onto forwards. With the game on the line in the final minute on Monday, Livingston poked the ball away from Toronto’s Terrence Ross.

“He’s so versatile,” Deron Williams said of his backcourt-mate after the win on Monday. “He’s been guarding the best players a lot of nights.”

It’s more than that. Livingston’s size unlocks everything the Nets do defensively. Without his size and activity, the scheme doesn’t work nearly as well, and the numbers bear that out. The Nets have been 8.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively since Jan. 1 when Livingston has been on the floor.

20140312_bkn_livingston

We all know Livingston’s story and it’s great to see him playing such a big role on a playoff team seven years after his gruesome and devastating knee injury as a Clipper. Less than 15 months ago, he was waived by the 3-22 Washington Wizards.

After doing a solid job in Cleveland in the second half last season, Livingston was Jason Kidd‘s choice to back-up Williams. Some of us thought he was a bad fit because of his poor (non-existent, really) perimeter shooting. But Kidd was right all along … although he couldn’t have known that he’d be relying on Livingston as much as he has.

The 28-year-old has already started more games (39) than he ever has and will surpass his career high in minutes next week.

“I didn’t know what to expect, coming in, being a back-up,” Livingston said. “But things happen in the NBA.”

This isn’t just a feel-good story, though. The Nets need Livingston, who has given them the identity that’s turned them into the team we’d thought they’d be at the beginning of the season with their $82 million starting lineup.

“You just try to find your niche,” he said. “Sometimes, you got to find your value on the court. What’s going to help my team win games? [Andrei] Kirilenko is the same way. We’re active. We’re long. So we have to use that to our advantage.”

The Nets are just two games over .500 and in sixth place in the weak East, but that 22-9 mark is the conference’s best in 2014. They’ve established themselves as a tough out for any team they’d face in the playoffs, including the Miami Heat. Brooklyn is 2-0 against Miami as the Heat host the Nets tonight (7 ET, ESPN).

It’ll be another game featuring a bunch of high-priced stars. And a guy making the minimum will play a big role.

Collins And Nets Breaking Barriers

VIDEO: Jason Collins signs with the Nets

Less than two months ago when they were 10-21 following a New Year’s Eve thumping, one might have believed there was a better chance of seeing an openly gay athlete in a NBA game than seeing Brooklyn in the playoffs.

Now Jason Collins and the Nets will try to break down barriers together.

By signing the 35-year-old 7-footer to a 10-day contract, it could be said the No. 8 seeded team is clawing desperately to hold onto the last playoff spot in the moribund Eastern Conference.

“The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” Nets general manager Billy King said in the statement. “We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract.”

And maybe if this were 10 or 20 years from now, that’s all it would be, a line of agate type in the transactions column.

For now though, it is one giant leap for sportskind, if only because it is the official opening of the societal and cultural closet door.

“Jason told us that his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team,” said commissioner Adam Silver. “Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal. I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment.”

Athlete Ally ambassador and Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried said: “With Jason Collins signing with the Nets today, I believe our world as professional athletes will open up and become less ignorant of gay male athletes playing and more accepting and embracing of the whole situation.”

It was back in April of last year when Collins revealed himself in Sports Illustrated to become the first openly gay male athlete in one of the four major American sports.

That announcement brought praise from President Obama, an invitation to the State of the Union address and a much higher profile than Collins had ever achieved with a 12-year NBA career in which he averaged just 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Yet it didn’t bring a training camp invitation from any of the 30 NBA clubs.

In the meantime, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam jumped into the headlines with his announcement that he is gay. Coming from the SEC co-defensive player of the year ahead of the NFL draft and from a 24-year-old at the start of his pro career, Sam’s revelation was immediately considered much more a test of tolerance in the testosterone filled air of sports, even if it had been met with a collective shrug in his own college locker room last fall.

“We would accept it greatly and it shouldn’t be a problem, man,” Nets guard Joe Johnson told reporters last week. “We’ve got a veteran group and I think everybody is pretty comfortable in their own skin. It’s about what he can do to help us out there on that court. That’s what it’s about.”

Point guard Deron Williams said if Collins’ addition would help the team, he’s in favor.

“I think it’s definitely going to be a media circus just because of the situation,” Williams said. “But I think with the type of team that we have, veterans who have played with him before and know him, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

The Nets, in fact, are probably the most logical and comfortable fit for Collins. For one, team owner Mikhail Prokorov campaigned for gay rights during his presidential bid in Russia. What’s more, veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are former teammates of Collins and Pierce was his most ardent backer when Collins came out last spring. Coach Jason Kidd also played alongside Collins with the Nets and will surely help foster an inclusive attitude.

“To each his own,” Pierce said back in April. “It’s probably going to open the door to many more. There’s so many professional athletes, there’s so many human beings, that are scared … because of the exposure of sports and what people might think about it. But I think what he did was a great thing, just to kind of open the door for other athletes who probably now are going to have the courage to come out.”

There has already, of course, been an outcry from some on social media that it is all a story manufactured and overblown for a player whose career has been marginal at best. No one is interested, they say and post and tweet. Yet the fact they have read and posted and tweeted is the clearest contradiction of themselves.

Collins has put himself in the spotlight. However, the Nets also deserve credit for looking past any potential distractions to help shoulder the burden and make history.

Heat All-Star guard Dwyane Wade got the news and summed up what matters on the court about Collins: “One thing I know about him is he fouled very hard. …Welcome back.”

For a chance to pull on the jersey, to lace up the sneakers, to try to help get the once forlorn Nets into the playoffs, smashing one previously unthinkable notion at a time.

Nets Keep Looking To Spend, Improve

Brooklyn acquired guard Marcus Thornton from the Kings to increase its offensive production.

Brooklyn picked up guard Marcus Thornton from the Kings to increase its offensive production.

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The first trade of deadline week went down Wednesday afternoon, with the Brooklyn Nets acquiring Marcus Thornton from the Sacramento Kings for Reggie Evans and Jason Terry.

The deal adds about $700,000 in salary and $2.7 million in luxury taxes to Brooklyn’s books this season. Next season, when all three guys are still under contract, it adds about the *same amount.

* More salary, less tax, because, at this point, Brooklyn is only in the third of five tax-payment tiers for ’14-15. Give ‘em time, though.

So, it’s a bit of an investment for Mikhail Prokhorov. But in theory, it should help the Nets continue to move up the Eastern Conference standings.

Brooklyn is 14-6 since Jan. 1, a stretch in which they’ve gone from 10th to seventh in the East. They’re just 2 1/2 games out of a top-four seed and need to keep moving up to avoid playing the Pacers or Heat in the first round and have a decent shot at the conference semifinals.

After all the money they spent last summer, anything less than the second round would be a colossal failure. So hey, they might as well spend a few more million if it can make them better.

And as good as the Nets have played in 2014, they still have plenty of room for improvement. They rank 15th offensively and sixth defensively since Jan. 1. Given all their talent, they should be better at putting the ball in the basket.

That’s where Thornton comes in. Since Jan. 1, the Nets have scored 108.3 points per 100 possessions with Deron Williams on the floor (a rate which would rank fifth in the league in that time) and just 100.6 with him on the bench (a rate which would rank 25th). Though Williams hasn’t been at his best, he’s still the most important offensive player on his team.

Shaun Livingston has been one of the Nets’ bright spots and has worked well with Williams in the starting lineup, but the Nets’ second-unit offense could use a boost. Terry has been a disappointment, Alan Anderson‘s production has dropped off and, as brilliant as Andrei Kirilenko has been, he’s made two shots outside of the paint all season.

The problem is that Thornton has been having the worst shooting season of his career, with an effective field goal percentage of just 45.7 percent. That’s worse than Terry was shooting.

So, the hope for Brooklyn is that Thornton can find his shot again. It was less than a month ago that he tied a career high with 42 points (shooting 7-for-15 from 3-point range) against the best defense of the last 37 years.

While he’s been rather inefficient this season, Thornton gives the Nets a higher ceiling and more potency than they had with Terry. If he plays well, he certainly fills a need.

The same could be said about Jordan Hill, if the Nets can get him from the Lakers for their disabled-player exception. In the same way that their offense takes a hit when their Williams sits, their defense falls apart when Kevin Garnett goes to the bench.

But you wonder how Hill would fit in a second-unit frontline that already includes Kirilenko, Andray Blatche and Mirza Teletovic. Each of those guys brings something to the table, the Nets have outscored their opponents by 21.5 points per 100 possessions in 115 minutes with the three of them on the floor together, and at least one of them would see a decrease in minutes if Hill was brought on board.

And then there’s the money. The Nets wouldn’t be sending any salary to L.A. in exchange for Hill, so he would cost them about $1.3 million in salary ($3.5 million prorated for the remainder in the season) and a whopping $16.6 million in luxury tax, bringing their total tax bill to more than $98 million. Add that to their salaries and they’d be a $200-million team.

That’s a lot of dough for a squad that doesn’t stand much of a chance of reaching the conference finals. But you can’t say that the Nets aren’t afraid to make a move or spend some money to address their needs.

Time To Step It Up For The Stretch Run


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the challenges facing the Knicks

Now that the slam dunking, 3-point shooting and other wretched excess of NBA All-Star weekend is in the rearview mirror, even those of us who aren’t 7-footers can stand on our tip-toes and see the playoffs from here.

There’s jockeying the standings to be done: Races for the No. 1 seeding in both the Eastern and Western Conference, the long-shot hopefuls trying to sneak in at the No. 8 spot and the down-to-the-wire elbowing for home-court advantage in the first round.

While Kobe Bryant continues driving himself to make it back onto the court this season because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant, there are a handful of other players and teams who need to step up their games coming down the homestretch:

Deron Williams — After a slow start a year ago, Williams found his stride and finished strong, averaging 22 points and 10 assists per game in the second half of the season. While the Nets have picked themselves out of the bottom of the garbage heap of the East to climb into the No. 7 spot in the standings thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally starting to come around, the most expensive roster in the league isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Williams can’t bounce back again and lead them. Is it the ankles? Is it the lack of confidence that he has mentioned? Or is he simply at the end of the line as an elite level point guard in his ninth season? Williams has scored 20 points just once since Jan. 4 and has only two games of handing out double-digit assists in 2014. He was even challenged to a 1-on-1 duel by coach Jason Kidd at a recent practice to try to light a spark.

Carmelo Anthony — He doesn’t show an interest in defense and, yes, he can turn Knicks games into a circus where he’s in the center ring and everyone else watches him hog the spotlight and the ball. Yet if it weren’t for Anthony carrying the offensive load, New York would be buried deeper in the standings. His PER of 24.61 is the second best of his career. Even at 20-32, the Knicks are within striking range in the East and Anthony is going to have to find a way to lift up his teammates — and save the job of coach Mike Woodson — rather than just outshine them before going into his summer of free agency. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if J.R. Smith stopped his clown show and got back to playing basketball at least part time.

Timberwolves — The clock is ticking. Not just on another season when the Wolves were supposed become a playoff team that is slipping away. It could — and should — be ticking loudly on the end of Kevin Love in Minnesota. Two more seasons until Mr. Double-Double can fly out of the icy north to a landing some place where they actually do more than just talk about making the playoffs. Healthy again, Love is back to putting up big numbers. Yes, he’s faltered at times down the stretch as the Wolves have lost a ton of close games. But it really is a case of not having a supporting cast around him that has shown much inclination for improvement. That’s you, Ricky Rubio. Reports have said G.M. Flip Saunders is willing to trade anybody on the roster except Love in an attempt to keep him in Minnesota. But as another year comes off the calendar, you have to wonder if it isn’t already too late.

Manu Ginobili — Sidelined since the end of the January with a strained hamstring, the San Antonio firecracker is scheduled to jump back into the lineup this week. He’s not on this list due to underperforming but for how much the Spurs need him back in their lineup to get the fire burning again. Tony Parker got a chance to get a head start on his All-Star break because he has simply looked worn out this season after going all the way to The Finals last June and then playing for the French national team in EuroBasket. Tim Duncan is showing more and more of his age at times and there are rumors that he is thinking of retiring at the end of the season. The Spurs have played miserably against the top contenders in the West — just a single win over a Clippers lineup without Chris Paul. They need Ginobili to come back strong and healthy and durable to be considered real playoff contenders again.

Andre Iguodala — When the Warriors brought him in from Denver, the belief was that he’d upgrade the roster at both ends of the floor. They figured he’d be the slashing, penetrating force of the past, adding another scoring option and helping Stephen Curry distribute the ball and being a solid wing defender. While he’s helped move the ball and been solid on defense, the problem has been a lack of offensive production. He’s scoring just 9.6 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season in Philly. The Warriors don’t need him to challenge Curry or Klay Thompson as a big gun every night, but occasional flashes of firepower will be necessary if the team hopes to climb out of the No. 8 spot in the West and reach the preseason goal of a top four finish. Iguodala has scored 20 points only once since the opening week of the season.