Jason Kidd and the Brooklyn Nets have figured out how to do the impossible. For years, the Boston Celtics suffered defensively whenever Kevin Garnett was on the bench, and that was also the case for the Nets most of this season.
Yet, since the beginning of March, Brooklyn has found success defending without Garnett, who has missed the past 10 games with back spasms.
From 2008 through 2013, the Celtics never really learned how to play while KG was on the bench. Whether he was hurt, or just resting, the C's struggled significantly.
No matter what Doc Rivers and the Celtics did, or which players were acquired, the team couldn't figure it out. Some playoff series were even lost in large part due to their inability to defend without Garnett, including the 2009 and 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
Somehow, that has changed in Brooklyn, as they keep finding ways to improve and win games. When Brook Lopez broke his foot on December 20, the Nets were doomed. They lost four out of their next five games and dragged their feet into 2014 with an underwhelming 10-21 record. At that point, some fans were ready to write it up as a lost season.
But from January through February, the Nets surprised the basketball world and fought their way back into the playoff race. By March, they had a 27-29 record, after a sensational start in 2014 -- gone was the ridiculous talk of "Soda-Gate" and the jokes about their "failed" blockbuster trade with Boston.
But the Nets were about to embark on another obstacle as March rolled around: Kevin Garnett's back spasms got serious and he was labeled as out indefinitely.
Season over...again? Not quite. Brooklyn is 8-2 in March, and they're doing it without their best big man defender, KG.
After Garnett won the NBA Finals with Boston in 2008, he screamed, "anything's possible!" This season, that seems to be the case for Brooklyn, a team that keeps finding ways to win. How do they do it?
Before even discussing what the Nets have done to play well without Kevin Garnett, it's important to understand the impact he makes on a defense. Statistically, the numbers are astounding, yet they don't really do him justice.
For the first 56 games this season, the Nets allowed 104 points per 100 possessions when Garnett was on the floor. But without him, that total ballooned to 111.2, a difference of 7.1. From January through February this year, the difference is even larger, at 12.3 points.
As the chart to the right details, this has been the case since 2008 with Boston. The greatest difference was in the 2012 playoffs, when the Celtics looked like they couldn't defend a D-League team with Garnett on the bench. Yet, with him, they were putting up numbers that would stack up against the greatest defenses of all time.
Garnett is naturally a difference maker on defense because of his tall height and unreal 7-foot-6 wingspan; but it's his intelligence and fundamentals that make him legendary. KG is one of the best help defenders in the league, he's elite at containing the pick and roll, and he constantly communicates with his teammates, which improves on-court chemistry and production.
For most of the season, it looked like the same old song and dance with the Nets. They'd defend extremely well with Kevin Garnett on the floor and they'd suffer the consequences with him on the bench.
More than any other season, this appeared to be a major problem, since Garnett is averaging a career-low 21 minutes per game, but the Nets have figured out how to do the impossible.
Brooklyn's defense is allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions in March, which would rank them as a top ten defense over the course of the season.
But it's not like the Nets are just getting lucky in terms of shots being made or missed, they're clearly forcing their opponents into doing what they want them to do. Brooklyn is averaging 12.9 steals and forcing 21.6 turnovers per 100 possessions, both of which lead the NBA this month.
This implies that opponents aren't getting quality looks and it's supported by a few interesting statistics. Teams are shooting only 31.6 percent from three, with only 19.8 assists per 100 possessions. Both of these statistics rank in the top three in March.
At 6-foot-7, with a wingspan near 7-feet, Shaun Livingston is a point guard inside of a small forward's body. Even though he hasn't met the hype set for him as the fourth pick in the 2004 draft, Livingston is in the middle of a long career as a high-end role player.
This year with the Nets may be his best yet. He has started 43 of 65 games and has become one of their most important defensive players.
Livingston's length allows him to switch on nearly every single screen. His unusual size means he can defend all guards and many forwards. Throughout the month, he has regularly switched with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and occasionally with Paul Pierce.
Switching on the pick and roll allows defenders to save energy and it puts much less pressure on the rest of the defense. Other strategies are called "hedge" or "ice," but both of these techniques require off-ball defenders to help. The on-ball defenders engaged on the play must expound large amounts of energy to defend a play.
Whether a team hedges or ices, it puts immense pressure on the team, but Livingston's ability to switch saves his team's energy and lessens the risk of breakdowns on the backend. Switching is easy, but only with the right personnel, which is precisely why the Nets are doing it so effectively right now.
Pierce the Power Forward
Paul Pierce had never started at power forward before this season, but in the 16th year of his career, he's once again proving why he's one of the greatest players of this generation.
At only 6-foot-7, Pierce clearly doesn't have ideal size to play power forward, yet he's playing at a high level this month. When he's on the floor, the Nets are allowing only 95.5 points per 100 possessions, but when he's off, they allow 110.1. That's a KG-like difference for a guy that never really made his name as a defensive player.
But Pierce is a smart, experienced player, who has surprising strength on the post. He's able to body up his man and defend well, even though he might be undersized. This has proven to be valuable, since the Nets haven't gotten exposed inside in March.
Amazingly, only 21.6 percent of opponent's attempts are layups or dunks when Pierce is on the floor. When he's off, that number rises to 31.4. This difference can once again be pinned on Pierce's ability to switch. Many times this month he has passed his matchup to Johnson or Livingston, which eases the pressure off the defense.
Aggression Leads to Turnovers
The combination of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston has stolen the ball a ridiculous 39 times already this month. Their ability to switch naturally causes opponents to be uncomfortable, but they raise the intensity by putting pressure on the ball-handler.
The collection of clips above shows many of the steals Livingston was involved in this past month. On some instances, they were due to a switch on the play, but others because of the immense pressure put on the other team.
Jason Kidd has clearly told his team to turn the aggression up a notch to make up for the lack of a natural "lockdown" defender the team had in Garnett.
Even in the first clip, Livingston is switched onto Channing Frye, which by all accounts should be a major mismatch. But Livingston is such a skilled defender that he can take hits to the body and still perfectly time his attempts for a strip.
Throughout the rest of the clips, the Nets do a fantastic job of displaying "active hands." Whether they're on or off-ball, their hands are up in the passing lanes, always ready to tip passes or snatch steals.
Rajon Rondo attempts an alley-oop to Jeff Green at the 1:43 mark of the video. This is normally a high percentage play, especially coming from Rondo, but Livingston keeps his hands ready to tip the ball away for a turnover. Yes, fouls can occur due to aggressive defense like that, but it also leads to turnovers, which has happened more often than not for the Nets in March.
Mason Plumlee was a terrible pick and roll defender at Duke. College players were able to make it look like he was sinking in quicksand, even though there was no reason for his issues. Plumlee obviously had athleticism, speed, and agility, but the results didn't translate onto the floor, which may have impacted his draft stock.
But Kevin Garnett has taken Plumlee under his wing and turned him into a very good rookie defender. "He's been great," said Plumlee. "It's valuable. There's no better teammate to start your career off with than Kevin."
Plumlee is an athletic player, but KG's guidance has allowed him to gain experience at a rapid pace. This is a prominent reason why the Nets have succeeded without Garnett. Even though Plumlee isn't nearly as talented as KG, his quickness has helped fill the void.
In the pick and roll, Plumlee is slightly undersized with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, but he's agile, so he is able to rush from one side of the paint to the other in order to prevent passes or drives to the rim. His lateral quickness lets him slide, whether he's defending a big or a penetrating guard.
In the first clip above, the Celtics run a side pick and roll and the Nets appropriately "ice" the play. The ball-handler snakes to the middle of the floor, which draws Plumlee over. This opens up Kris Humphries on the baseline, so the pass is made to the open man. However, Plumlee is quick enough to get over there in time to deter the shot. Make or miss, this is a result the Nets can live with.
Plumlee makes an extraordinary KG-like play in the second clip. Chicago runs a pick and roll and Brooklyn was a little slow to respond for the "ice." But Plumlee sidesteps into positioning to deter the ball-handler from getting into the teeth of the defense. This leaves Joakim Noah wide-open for a straight look at the rim. Plumlee closes out hard on Noah with his arms extended to force him to put the ball on the floor.
Considering all of Plumlee's momentum was taking him towards Noah, you would think he'd have no chance of being able to stop the drive. But this is where his experience with Garnett, and his natural athleticism, has quickly turned him into a reliable defender. He stops on a dime as Noah drives, and stays pace for pace with him all the way to the rim, before elevating to block the shot at its apex.
It's a sensational play, one that not many defenders could make in the NBA. Plumlee's advancements this season put the Nets in a great position as the playoffs approach.
Brook Lopez's injury was a blessing in disguise for Brooklyn. Jason Kidd was able to shift Kevin Garnett to center, where he is much more efficient at 37-years-old, and they were able to start Shaun Livingston.
But it's Garnett's injury that could propel them from pretenders to contenders in the playoffs. Before this stretch, the Nets struggled without him -- just like almost every Celtics team the past five seasons -- but they have now learned how to compensate for his absence.
When Kevin Garnett returns, the Nets will reacquire their best defender, taking the team to a whole new level. But they won't lose much on the bench, since their time without him taught them valuable lessons. Mason Plumlee will come off the bench and the Nets will be able to defend nearly as effectively as the starters do.
If Jason Kidd is developing into the quality coach that he appears to be, this fluidity between the starting lineup and the reserves could lead to some potential upsets in the playoffs.
Whether or not they beat a team like the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat remains to be seen, but they deserve to be in the conversation once Kevin Garnett returns. Remember, anything is possible, and the Brooklyn Nets have proven that time and time again already this season.