What we learned from the first preseason game
Going into last night’s Nets preseason game there were three things I wanted to watch closely. The first was how Shaun Livingston looked getting the start for the injured Deron Williams. All signs point to D-Will being ready for the opener, but just in case he’s not, Livingston will have to be ready to assume the starting point guard duties. That’s no small feat on a team featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez. That’s a lot of mouths to feed from the point guard position.
The second thing I was paying special to was the Nets transition defense. It’s been a point of emphasis throughout training camp: The Nets struggled mightily getting back on defense last season, and with an aging roster, it will be imperative for that to change. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett should actually help in this regard, as they come from a system in Boston which stressed transition defense over offensive rebounding nearly every time down the court.
The last thing I was watching for was how the offense flowed. Coach Kidd may have a tough time spreading the ball around with so many proven veteran scorers on the court at once. It will be important for Williams and Livingston to try and keep everyone happy within the natural flow of the offense.
Livingston looked great in his preseason debut, to put it plainly. He dished out five assists, only had one turnover in his 19 minutes, and did a good job of getting the Nets into their sets early in the shot clock. (Something Coach Kidd has stressed to his team; he doesn’t want them walking the ball up the floor chewing precious seconds off the shot clock.) The Nets are not trying to push the ball to generate fast break points—they had just eight last night, but they will look for semi-transition opportunities when they arise. Kevin Garnett excels as a trail man, often lagging behind plays only to join them just in time to launch one of his trademark elbow jump shots.
Livingston also did an exceptional job feeding the post. Brook Lopez was a monster in the paint, converting six of seven field goal attempts with an array of jump hooks and baseline jumpers. Lopez looked extremely comfortable on both sides of the floor, setting up shot on the right side in the first quarter, then moving to the left side in the second. In just 12 minutes he poured in 15 points. Part of the reason was the space he had to operate from the block. If the entry passer is too close when he makes the initial dump down it can screw up the timing of the whole play. Livingston used his long limbs to create angles and give Brook all the space and time he needed.
As a whole the Nets transition defense was a little shaky last night. The Wizards had 16 fast break points, but 12 of them came in the first half. John Wall flashed up on the down the court as often as he could, leading to lay ins or free throws. Wall alone had 7 of the Wizards’ 43 total free throw attempts. Yes, it was a preseason game, but the Nets will have to drastically cut down on their fouls, particularly in transition. Several times the Wizards generated open three pointers in transition only to see them bounce off the rim (2-18 behind the arc). These lapses will hurt the Nets against better deep shooting teams. They’ll need to continue to get better in this regard.
When the Nets defense gets set it’s very difficult to score on them in the half court. The Wizards knew this, so they attacked early and often inside. Nene had 19 points on 8-11 shooting, with half of his makes coming right at the rim. The Wizards actually outscored the Nets in the paint 46-40 for the game, a somewhat unexpected result given the quality big men of the Nets. Much of this can be attributed to Kevin Garnett only playing 12 minutes, but still, this may be something to watch for as the preseason goes along.
Overall, the Brooklyn offense was a pretty blend of crisp ball movement, pick-and-rolls, and post ups. There were the pet plays for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett taken from their Boston days, a Ray Allen-esque set for Joe Johnson involving a series of baseline screens, side pick-and-rolls often featuring Garnett, and a lot of Brook on the block.
The other major addition for the Nets, Andrei Kirilenko, fit right into the system, getting his points off of baseline cuts and in transition. Kirilenko played 24 minutes, and in typical fashion absolutely stuffed the stat sheet. He had 11 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals, and threw in a block just for good measure. Kirilenko was all over the court, and as expected, did whatever it took for his team to win.
Overall, it was a solid effort for a new group of players still learning how to play with one another. The new backup point guard looked more than capable of being able to fill in for Deron Williams when needed. The transition defense left something to be desired, but as with most things, it will improve the more KG is on the court. Lastly, the offense showed no signs of the half court stagnation that doomed the team last season. Be sure to watch Livingston and Kirilenko throughout the preseason, and let’s hope the transition defense picks up a bit.