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Reinvented Nets Keep It Rolling

While Jason Kidd’s spilled drink epitomized the start of his tenure as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, he now has the team hitting on all cylinders and climbing up the standings in the Eastern Conference. One benefit of a long and stressful 82-game regular season is that it gives teams the opportunity to turn things around, especially for a team like the Nets who went into the New Year as a disappointing 10-21 team.

“Our goal is to try to win the Atlantic,” Kidd told ESPN New York 98.7. “And we still believe that we can do that. Again, Toronto is playing extremely well and it’s not going to be easy but we take one game at a time and if we take care of our business, then maybe we put ourselves in a position to win the Atlantic and that’s something we feel we can do.”

After moving Paul Pierce to the power forward position on January 1, the Nets have been streaking with a 26-10 record—including 11 straight wins at Barclays Center. They currently sit as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, 2.5 games behind the Raptors for first place in the Atlantic Division.

The Nets have abandoned much of their halfcourt sets in favor of a more up-tempo pace after Brook Lopez suffered a season ending foot injury. The loss of Lopez’s 25.6 PER and 20.7 PPG has hurt the teams’ offensive output, but it has opened doors for other players to contribute.

Mason Plumlee injects frontcourt athleticism that the Nets have dearly lacked much of the season. Watching Kidd’s rookie season as coach, we can see that he wants his team to push the ball and run as much as possible, similar to Kidd’s own style of play.

Without creating turnovers, there would be no way any team would be able to generate a significant amount of points in transition. The Nets are currently tied for fourth in the league for steals per game at 8.6. Much of this can be attributed to backup point guard Shawn Livingston. Livingston ranks third in minutes played on the team, and has only missed one game all season. His long 6’11” wingspan allows him to switch effortlessly between defending guards and forwards, often creating steals that lead to easy transaction baskets for the Nets. When Livingston is on the court, the Nets allow a tough 97.3 points per 100 possessions since January 1; when Livingston is on the bench, the Nets give up 105.8 points per 100 possessions.

John Schuhmann—one of the best advanced stats writers in the business—describes Livingston perfectly: “A 6-foot-7 point guard with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Livingston is the embodiment of Brooklyn’s new identity.”

With the lingering back issues for Kevin Garnett, Plumlee has been getting the minutes in the frontcourt starting the past ten games in Garnett’s absence. The Nets have scored an impressive 16.7% of their points off the fastbreak and 27.1 percent of opponent turnovers with Plumlee as a starter, compared to 10 percent and 16.4 percent respectively while Lopez was in the lineup.

After Plumlee was inserted into the starting lineup, Deron Williams has started to come on. In another injury-ridden season thanks to his ankles, Williams has had the worse statistical season since his rookie year. However, with the Nets running more on transaction, Williams is starting to round into form. So far in March—10 games in—he has averaged 17.2 PPG with 6 assists along with an impressive 48 percent shooting.

The presence of Jason Collins has provided the team with a consistent staple of locker room chemistry. While Collins averages less than 10 minutes per game, the Nets still agreed to terms to sign him for the rest of the year. This illustrates how much the Nets value Collins as a locker room presence, as well as his vocal leadership on defense. 

With 16 games left in the season, only four of those are against teams above .500. As long as the core group of Nets remains healthy going into the playoffs, they will certainly be a tough out in the playoffs against any team. Contrasting from last year’s lifeless team that was eliminated by the Bulls, the Nets have playoff-tested veterans like Pierce, Kirilenko and Garnett. No one player on the team has averaged more than 16 points per since January 1. Kidd has finally found his niche to be a successful NBA coach—playing unselfish basketball just as he did as a player. 

All About The Bigs In March

After a wild day that saw a few favorites escape by the skin of their teeth, the first day of the NCAA Tournament ended with three higher-seeded teams going home - two 5’s (Oklahoma and Cincinnati) and a 6 (Ohio State). They all had the same problem - they did not have an interior presence. Oklahoma and Ohio State played 4-out with an undersized center while Cincinnati had no starter above 6’7.

Ohio State started a conventional center in Amir Williams (6’11 250), but he was largely ineffective against Dayton, with 0 points in 18 minutes of action. They played four perimeter players around him, with LaQuinton Ross (6’8 220) at the 4. In the second half, Thad Matta pulled Williams and played Ross at the 5. As a result, Ohio State wasn’t any bigger than Dayton, an Atlantic-10 team that went 6’10 250 and 6’7 225 across the front-line.

Oklahoma was even smaller. The Sooners started Ryan Spangler (6’8 230) at center and played Cameron Clark (6’7 210) at power forward. In the Big 12, they won games by spreading out bigger teams, playing at a faster pace and outscoring them. It’s a style of play better suited for an underdog than a favorite. When you saw them on the court, OU didn’t look like the favorite. North Dakota State went 6’8 250 and 6’7 185 upfront - they were a little bigger.

Cincinnati was bigger and more athletic across their starting five than either OU or OSU, but they still had a massive hole at the center position. Mick Cronin’s team played five-out basketball, with three combo forwards - Justin Jackson (6’8 230), Titus Rubles (6’7 220) and Shaquille Thomas (6’7 205) - along their front line. All three were excellent athletes who played bigger than their size, but none could consistently score out of the post or protect the rim.

Not having big men who can play weakens a team on both sides of the ball. On offense, a team without a post presence can’t control the tempo of the game. When the other team is making a run, they can’t slow the game down, throw it inside and give themselves time to breath. On defense, a team that can’t protect the rim and clear the glass has a hard time putting anyone away, since the opposing team can always get easy points inside if their jumpers aren’t falling.

Just as important, a team without a 6’9+ player who can create their own shot is forgoing one of the easiest ways to score in a NCAA Tournament setting. For the most part, every team in the field of 68 has quality perimeter players. The frontcourt is what separates higher seeds from the rest of the pack - the supply of quality 6’9+ players is much more limited than the supply of quality 6’2+ ones. Most lower-seeded teams just don’t have the big men to compete.

That’s how a higher-seeded team can put away an upset bid before it even has a chance to get going. Everytime Delaware looked like they would make a run at Michigan State, the Spartans threw it inside to Adreian Payne (6’10 245). The Blue Hens, who didn’t start a center, had no answer for Payne, who scored 41 points on 15 shots. Delaware was one of the better lower-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament - they could have upset a team without an NBA big man.

Of course, a lack of a big man isn’t the sole reason why Cincinnati, Ohio State and OU went down on Thursday. All three games came down to the final minutes, with Dayton winning by 1, Harvard winning by 4 and NDSU winning in OT. Anything can happen in the final minutes of an NCAA Tournament game. The key, from the perspective of the higher-seeded team, is not letting it get to that point. Delaware lost by 15; they never had a chance to steal it at the end.

When a high-major team downsizes, they are forfeiting the very advantage that comes with being in one of the bigger conferences. A small-ball game, by its nature, tends to be more high-variance, as both teams get more of their offense off jumpers and three-pointers. If you don’t have multiple NBA players on the perimeter, which neither OU, OSU or Cincinnati had, it’s hard to separate yourself from a quality lower-seeded team like Dayton, Harvard or NDSU.

The 5/12 pairings are one of the most common upsets because the differences in talent even out the deeper you go into the at-large pool. The difference between a 1 and a 5 seed is much greater than the difference between a 5 and a 9 or a 5 and a 12. At that point in the seedings, teams are being ranked as much on their schedules as anything else. When you play Summit League or Ivy League teams for two and a half months, it’s hard to have a big RPI or SOS.

And while a low-major team will almost never be able to find a 6’10+ athlete with NBA ability, they are usually able to scrape together a few 6’8 guys who know how to play. Harvard is hardly a big team, starting two 6’7 225 forwards upfront, but they have just enough size to make themselves a credible opponent, given the right match-up. Unfortunately for them, they face Michigan State in the second round and they have no one with a prayer of guarding Payne.

When you don’t have enough size to defend the post, you are forced to play on your opponent’s terms. Since Harvard can’t single cover Payne, Michigan State can throw it inside and live with whatever happens. Either Payne gets a clear look at the basket or he draws a double team and moves the ball back outside to one of the Spartans perimeter shooters. It’s all about balance - if Payne was playing with guards who couldn’t shoot or pass, he would be ineffective.

One of the most common misnomers about the NCAA Tournament is that it’s a “guard’s game.” While it is very hard to win games in March without quality backcourt play, it is just as hard to win them without quality play in the frontcourt. The best teams have good players at each of the five positions on the floor, which allows them to match-up with any opponent. A high seeded team without a big man is like a boxer with a weak chin - the upset is always a possibility.

Top Tourney Matchups For Friday

After one of the best Thursdays in NCAA Tournament history, there’s still plenty of action left for entertainment on Friday. With lots of intriguing matchups on hand, we take a look at six in particular to watch.

- Doug McDermott (Creighton) vs. Elfrid Payton (Louisiana Lafayette)

The duo will probably never match-up on each other one-on-one, but the two will be certainly be competing in the scoring column. McDermott was the nation’s leading scorer this past season by averaging 26.9 points per game on 53 percent shooting along with a 45 percent clip from three. The 6-foot-8 forward will be a first round pick in this year’s NBA draft because of his sweet shooting ability. Not far behind, Payton averaged 19.1 points per game while shooting 51 percent from the field for Louisiana-Lafayette. The two contrast styles, as Creighton tries to get McDermott in catch-and-shoot situations while Payton prefers to attack off the dribble and get to the rim. Payton, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, has drawn NBA interest after averaging six assists and 5.9 rebounds per game to go with his scoring ability. He struggles shooting the three, only making 26 percent of his attempts this season, but his no-nonsense attacking ability could carry the Ragin’ Cajuns, especially with Creighton’s lack of a rim protector. Creighton should expect to move on, but don’t overlook Payton’s ability to lead Louisiana-Lafayette to an upset.

- VCU’s tempo vs. Stephen F. Austin

Head coach Shaka Smart has built his VCU program on pressure defense and forcing opponents to turn the ball over. The Rams lead the nation in steals per game at 11.2 while they also force 18.3 turnovers per contest. According to KenPom.com, the Rams are fourth in adjusted tempo among NCAA tournament teams, averaging 70.7 possessions per 40 minutes of action, while Stephen F. Austin plays the eighth slowest tempo in the tournament with an average of 63.6 possessions per 40 minutes. The Lumberjacks use their guard play to slow the game down and take quality shots deep into the shot clock. With both teams’ lack of size, the guard play and pace should certainly decide this one.

- Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico) vs. Dwight Powell (Stanford)

The pair of international power forwards will be fun to watch in the South region. Bairstow and Powell are seniors and one of the two will play his final collegiate game on Friday. Bairstow, a 6-foot-9, 23-year-old from Australia, has been one of the most improved players in the country. He’s averaging 20.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game for the Lobos after a junior season in which he averaged 9.7 points per game. Bairstow has been effective in facing up and attacking the basket off the dribble, allowing him to finish at the rim or get to the foul line. Powell is a 6-foot-10, 22-year-old from Canada averaging 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game this year. He has the athleticism to run the floor and, like Bairstow, excels in facing the basket and attacking. With similar styles of play, it will be interesting to see who prevails.

- Marcus Paige (North Carolina) vs. Bryce Cotton (Providence)

Both of these point guards are the primary scoring options on their respective teams. Paige, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, is averaging a team-high 17.4 points and 4.3 assists per game for the Tar Heels. In addition, the southpaw is practically the only threat from behind the arc as he accounts for 59 percent of North Carolina’s made three-pointers this season. Cotton also leads his team in scoring and assists with 21.4 and 5.8 per game respectively. The 6-foot-1 senior was crucial in Providence’s Big East tournament championship with 23 points in the title game against Creighton. Friday’s winner could very well be decided by the play of the point guard position. If the game comes down to one final possession, it will likely be Paige or Cotton taking the final shot for their respective team. With their clutch showings this season, either team with the ball would have to like their chances.

- Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) vs. Gonzaga defense

Marcus Smart has been a premier point guard for Oklahoma State this season, averaging 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per game for the Cowboys. The 6-foot-4, 220 pounder uses his size to attack smaller defenders off the dribble and finish at the rim. Gonzaga features a pair of smaller point guards in David Stockton (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) and Kevin Pangos (6-foot-2, 180 pounds). While both have played well this season, they’ll face a difficult task on the defensive end with Smart. If neither can find a way to keep Smart out of the lane, the Bulldogs could see the opposing guard have a big night. The Bulldogs may also use a 2-3 zone to try to exploit Smart’s 30 percent three-point shooting percentage. Defending Smart will be key in Gonzaga’s game plan and ultimate outcome.

- Old Cinderella vs. New Cinderella

Wichita State finds itself in an unfamiliar situation after being last year’s underdog story of the NCAA tournament. Last season, the ninth-seeded Shockers made a surprising Final Four run before falling to the eventual champion, Louisville. Now, Wichita enters this year’s tournament undefeated with a 34-0 record and number one seed although many have scrutinized their poor strength of schedule and lack of quality wins. This year, Cal Poly put together an improbable run after finishing the regular season 10-19 and winning the Big West tournament title to qualify for its first tournament appearance in school history. The Mustangs weren’t done there; however, as they defeated Texas Southern on Wednesday to advance and play the Shockers. Should Cal Poly be expected to hang with Wichita State? Probably not, as the Mustangs enter as 16-point underdogs, but it’s certainly a role reversal to watch and see how the Shockers respond. This could be a statement game for Wichita State or, although extremely unlikely, the most historic upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

RealGM's NCAA Tournament Picks

Florida is the predicted champ by three of our six writers, while Wichita State, Michigan State and Kansas each get a vote.

Michigan State Undercover: The Most Complete Team In Tournament

When their five starters are in, Michigan State has an NBA prospect at every position who can impact the game on offense and defense. Unlike the rest of the field of 68, they don’t have an exploitable weakness on either side of the ball.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Mar. 17-Mar. 23)

This week features a few games that will go a long way towards figuring out the playoff seeding as well as a few that could swing the ping pong balls. Naturally, there will be other basketball competing for your time as well.

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Thursday featured 36 games in the nine major conference tournaments. Here is my running summary of all the games.

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RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Mar. 3-Mar. 10)

On Manny Harris, Tiny Gallon, Damion James, Cameron Jones, Willie Reed and more from the D-League.

The Wichita State Match-Up Blueprint

Wichita State has become one of the best programs in the country, regardless of conference affiliation. They want to get the game going up-and-down, where they have the advantage in terms of taking care of the ball and knocking down transition 3’s.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Mar. 10-Mar. 16)

In a quality stretch with important games at the top and bottom of the standings, we have something truly unusual in NNGW this week: a team listed four times.

Dwight Howard Has Rockets Looking Like Title Contenders

No one was winning a title with Dwight Howard’s supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. He’s in a better situation with the Rockets, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.

Heat Left Vulnerable With No Deal To Improve Bench

With the thinnest bench during the Big 3 era, Pat Riley may be forcing LeBron James to produce several 2007-esque performances to complete their threepeat.

Wednesday NBA Fantasy: $50,000 Guaranteed Payout

One-Day leagues are the most exciting way to play NBA fantasy basketball. Any night you want to add excitement to the NBA schedule, you can pick a fantasy team.

Pacers Show New Wrinkle With Evan Turner At Point Guard

The Pacers don’t rely on George Hill to run the point in a traditional way, but handing the ball to Evan Turner on consecutive nights in close games down the stretch was certainly a gutsy call by Frank Vogel.

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