Nets Protective, of Each Other and the Rim
With a night to cool off and take stock of Wednesday's altercation between the Nets and Celtics, the league handed out only one suspension: two games for Rajon Rondo, who initiated the fracas by shoving Kris Humphries toward the baseline following Hump's hard (post-whistle) foul on Kevin Garnett. Outside of being ejected, Humphries did a solid job of defending himself without "escalating" the incident and earned no further attention, though Garnett ($25,000 fine) and Gerald Wallace ($35,000) did.
General Manager Billy King said on a Thursday conference call that he had "agreed to disagree" with NBA VP of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson, who determined the penalties. But the quick reactions to protect teammates and showed the Nets have truly begun to jell as a team, rather than merely taking the court as a collection of players. As Deron Williams said after the game: "It's not about being tough or anything like that, we just don't back down from anybody."
The Nets also did a good job, Williams pointed out, of keeping their composure and finishing the game. They've now beaten the Celtics twice in two attempts this season, once on each team's home floor, and avoided a potential letdown following the highs of beating the Knicks in the first "Clash of the Boroughs." That's four Atlantic Division victories in as many attempts, and their 10-4 record resides (tied) atop the early standings.
That's due to collective effort, in no small part strongly influenced by the team's bench. Players like Reggie Evans (4 straight games of 10-plus rebounds), Jerry Stackhouse (9-of-11 3Ps in the last 2 games) and Andray Blatche (17 points, 13 boards on Wednesday) have been contributing game in, game out – whether individually or part of a unit that oftentimes trades buckets at the minimum and often erases deficits or extends leads.
"When you bring guys in, you never know what they’re going to do until they start practicing," King said. "And once they start practicing, playing, getting in games, guys tend to fall into the rotation. The rotation tends to develop once you start playing games. I think Jerry has given us more than expected, but he’s prepared himself to do that. Avery and I were talking today – Robert Horry towards the end of his career, this is what he did. He came in put himself in the right spot and made shots."
Role filling will continue to prove important, as the team also announced that Brook Lopez would miss the next two games with a mild sprain of the right foot. A precautionary X-ray was negative and the location of the pain (top, as opposed to bottom or side) combined to indicate that the injury was unrelated to the fracture Lopez suffered last December.
Blatche will likely step into an increased role, and with no other true center on the roster, time opens for small lineups featuring Gerald Wallace at power forward, or the implementation of Mirza Teletovic as a stretch 4. This provides a key opportunity for Teletovic, who has struggled adjusting to the NBA after superstar-caliber offense in the Euroleague last season, and also MarShon Brooks, who returned from a sprained ankle to find his minutes absorbed by a combination of Stackhouse and Keith Bogans. Both could see temporary spikes in playing time, and concerted efforts (along with shooting efficiency) could impress Avery Johnson enough to adjust the rotation once Lopez returns.
For all either player produces on offense, the team has struck something of a defensive identity, playing at the league's slowest pace (90.62 possessions per 48 minutes) while allowing the league's second-fewest points per game (90.0 allowed, a pace-adjusted No. 11 defensive efficiency of 100.1). The duo must find a place within that system and context if they hope to spend the game without splinters.
"I think I said it earlier in the year: with the Celtics, when they put that group together, Ray Allen wasn’t known for his defense, Paul Pierce wasn’t known for his defense, but they put a good system together and the guys bought in," King said. "I knew we had guys that were capable of playing defense and we had a good system. It was just going to take time. I think Avery’s done a good job of putting the right guys on the court and playing them and buying in and that are doing it the right way."