Saturday, January 11, 2014

As Does Joe Johnson, So Do the Brooklyn Nets

Photo by Seth Wenig/AP
It's no secret that the Brooklyn Nets are the hottest team in the NBA right now. After starting out an atrocious 10-21, something within the Nets has sparked. Since 2014 started, the Nets are undefeated at 5-0.

Leading the way is Joe Johnson. After a terrible slump, he has really turned his game around:
JJ, Joe Cool, Iso Joe, Joe Jesus – whatever you want to call him, the man has been tremendous for Brooklyn as of late with Deron Williams out of the lineup. In those three games, he's put up an average of 27.3 points, 3.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds, a steal, and 2.3 three point shots on 50% shooting from the field and 43.8% from downtown, logging a heavy 39.7 minutes per game.

We all know by know how important Johnson can be to the Nets' efforts when he's hot – especially in the clutch. Brooklyn is 7-3 this season when he scores at least 20 points and 6-3 when he takes at least 17 shots.

So what's behind his latest resurgence?
“My body was feeling good, and I just came out trying to be aggressive," Johnson told Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. “I was really trying to get to the basket. I got a couple of post-ups, and the 3-point line just opened up a little bit and I made a couple of 3s. For the most part, I thought my teammates did a great job making plays and kicking it and just being in the right place at the right time.”
Johnson's aggressive work, especially in the post, has wreaked havoc against smaller and weaker guards – guys like Ray Allen, Lou Williams, and Kyle Korver have had their hands full. The big backcourt lineup of Shaun Livingston and Johnson is doing wonders for Brooklyn.

Notably, they're doing it all without their two best players: Brook Lopez, who is sidelined for the remainder of the season, and Williams, who has missed the last three games with ankle issues.

Part of the Nets' streak and Johnson's resurgence is undoubtedly because he's had to step up his game significantly. Even with a team with veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on it, Johnson knew that he had to be the man to rise to the challenge and claim leadership on the court if the Nets were ever going to turn this season around.
I think I’ve been a little more aggressive, maybe handling the ball a little more, and making plays, making more decisions. All of that ties into getting in more of a rhythm, and offensively I’ve been able to get in a pretty good rhythm and take advantage of what the defense gives me.”
The Nets have got to like that. For a team that's been plagued by a severe lack of accountability and self-responsibility since its move to Brooklyn, it's truly a breath of fresh air to see a player stand up and say, "I'm the man." Credit Joe Johnson for knowing when to rise up and take the reins.

He hasn't done it alone, though.

Pierce and Garnett have looked much better so far in 2014. It's apparent that they've settled into their roles – Pierce as a second or third scoring option who can be effective in either spot-up shooting or creating his own shot, and Garnett as a 25-minutes per game center who anchors the interior defense.

Livingston has stepped up in a major way as a terrific ball handler with great court vision. He's a defensive nightmare for smaller guards and can even stand toe-to-toe with the NBA's premier forwards. Mirza Teletovic's game is improving every day and his presence from beyond the arc, where he's shooting 41.4% this season, is invaluable. Andrei Kirilenko's return has been immensely important. He's a guy who does a little bit of everything, especially on the defensive side of the court, and the Nets are 5-1 since his return.

Remember last season when interim head coach PJ Carlesimo announced that he'd be cutting the Nets' rotation to 10 guys? Subsequent to that, the Nets finished off the season hot, going 15-7.

Perhaps less is more.

During this five-game winning streak, head coach Jason Kidd has more or less done the same thing – he just hasn't announced it. Kidd has deployed rotations of 10 or even nine guys that play significant minutes. Maybe the Nets' problem before was that there were simply too many guys in the rotation. Minutes restrictions are important sometimes, but what's more important is leaving guys in when they're hot and giving them enough minutes to settle in. If it means that Mason Plumlee, Tyshawn Taylor, and Tornike Shengelia have to sit out a lot of games, so be it.

Not including Williams' stats from the first two games of 2014, Johnson has led the Nets in many important categories: points, and field goals made, is second in offensive rating, defensive rating (interestingly, Garnett is first in both of those categories), and total usage, and has scored 25.4% of the team's points while he's in the game.

To put it another way, Joe Jesus has risen from the dead. So, too, it seems, have the Brooklyn Nets.

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