The season of ups and downs, twists and turns, dips and peaks never seems to slow; the Brooklyn Nets, an everlasting giving tree of content and information, is at its absolute peak as a curveball-throwing machine.
Kyrie Irving, who hasn’t played since November 14th because of a shoulder injury, is set to be evaluated in a week. Said Irving, “We just see where we end up in the next few days. Realistically, we will re-evaluate tomorrow. See how I feel tomorrow. Then go Saturday -- probably another practice.
“Hopefully I get some game reps in addition to practice probably in the next week or so, it could be less than that but I’ll give myself a week.”
Oh, but it gets better: Irving’s co-star in the wings, Kevin Durant, is reportedly “progressing fantastically.” According to Kenny Atkinson, he’s passing the eye-test and then some.
“You guys can probably see he’s moving a lot better, moving a lot more. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and get people mad at me for giving you more than that.”
It’s funny how fast the tides of fate can change in a place like Brooklyn, New York. Seems like only yesterday I wrote about Brooklyn’s seeming failure to adhere to the analytics. Oh wait, it was yesterday! Now, the Nets are – potentially – on the cusp of working in two top-15 talents. I tell ya, the NBA is a crazy vehicle of madness that perpetually moves at hyper-speed.
To ride this sudden tsunami of good tidings and seldom-felt elation, let’s take a look at two standouts from the recent overtime heartbreaker versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. Glancing at the scoreboard and stat-sheet alone, it’s easy to assume that Brooklyn lost yet another tearjerker in embarrassing hopeless fashion (which, they did, but I digress). The Nets’ best player, Spencer Dinwiddie, finished with a blah 6-for-21 from the field. As a club, Brooklyn shot just 29.7 percent from three, 40.8 percent from the field. On the other end, 34-year-old Chris Paul was empowered by Brooklyn to take —and make— any shot he pleased, scoring 28 total points – 10 of which came during crunch-time situations, per NBA stats…. Now onto that cautious optimism.
Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn’s potential frontcourt in the not-so-distant future, showcased valiant signs of life. For both, this was a needed breath of fresh air; Kurucs is not far removed from his time in Long Island because of struggles, while Allen has been a 9-point, 6-rebound guy over the last two weeks. Not what you want.
Let’s begin with Kurucs, since his reemergence is, arguably, more enticing to the fanbase after such a dramatic early-season swoon. Box-score base-jumping is, frankly, a poor way to evaluate Kurucs’ imprint on Tuesday’s contest: 4 points on 2-of-4 shooting, 2 rebounds and 4 assists doesn’t exactly melt the skin off fanatic bodies.
What should have epidermises (epidermeri?) turning into Raiders of the Lost Ark mush (last one, I promise) was Rodi’s devotion in making plays off the dribble. Not long ago, Kurucs looked the part of a terrified fawn, his legs unable to sprint, his mind incapable of making plays on the go; Rodi’s 4.3 turnovers per 36 minutes to start the season led his team by a handsome margin. Not to sound the alarm, but based on what we saw on Tuesday, the Rodi of old may be back.
During the preseason, Kurucs told reporters he hoped to ascend into a Draymond Green-like playmaking role. Most folks – fans, media and even his coach – laughed off the notion that Rodi could become that type of unique specimen. Said Atkinson at the time, “tell him the coach wants him to be less ball-handler. … Me and him have to get on the same page. Someone’s talking to him, on the internet, chat room, whatever. … We have to get back to Rodi on that.
“That was for summer league, maybe he was handling it a little more. Now he’s got to come back to who we are, and put him in his role.”
Yet, perhaps it’s Kurucs – the exciting jack of all trades prospect who lit up eyes aplenty just a season ago – who will have the last laugh. Here, he attacks off a close-out, blowing by Chris-fickin-Paul (a mighty stout defender against bigs), before dropping off to Jarrett Allen for the uncontested dunk.
Two things I love about this play: 1) hettacks with conviction even in the face of a good defender. But two, while drawing in multiple defenders, Rodi gets rid of the ball in time to avoid the potential Steven Adams charge (which was a major thorn in his side early into the season).
More Rodi passing goodness… Once again, a sharp attack off a close-out, a dish to Jarrett Allen, before he repositions himself in the right dunker’s spot. From there, Jarrett Allen attracts multiple Thunder jerseys and plays a game of keep-away with Kurucs now on the baseline. With the ball in his hands, Kurucs sees Darius Bazley and Chris Paul flying in his direction, so he flings a kick-out fastball to a wide-open Taurean Prince for one of his five (potentially) slump-breaking threes.
Another fantastic Rodi drive in spite of oncoming defenders; this one’s of the scoring variety. As you can see, shooting 37 percent from deep on almost 4 attempts per game is working wonders for the 21-year-old Latvian. Using the threat of his new-found stroke, a convincing ball-fake sends Darius Bazley flying – Karate Kid style – and Kurucs knifes into the paint like a 6’9” Spencer Dinwiddie.
Of course, Tuesday wouldn’t be a signature Rodions Kurucs performance without one of his always-timely backdoor cuts. Here, Kurucs – a 94th percentile cutter – dusts poor Chris Paul after faking a “lift” from the corner in what originally looked to be a handoff (or an on-ball screen).
Shifting gears to the other half of Brooklyn’s prospective big-man alignment, we all probably should have seen a huge performance coming from Jarrett Allen the second he turned poor Mike Muscala into the ghost of Christmas past.
However, Allen wasn’t finished asserting himself on both ends of the floor in the most Fro-like highlight fashion. A weakside block against Terrance Ferguson (arguably, his best block of this young season) and another Stretch Armstrong-crossed-with-Dr. J-like dunk hammered home a message in all caps: I AM BACK! JARRETT ALLEN IS BACK!
For those of you who have read me all season long, you’ll know I see a great deal of potential in Allen’s perimeter defense. Kenny Atkinson holds a drop-back defensive system (where the bigs hang close to the basket) near and dear to his heart, and a lot of this stems from the centers’ inability to defend pull-up shooters consistently. Here, Allen picks up the ever-evasive Thunder point guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, on a switch. SGA, realizing he has a big man in between him and the basket, backs the ball out and prepares his drive…
Look, no, really, LOOK at how Allen flips his footwork the second he senses Gilgeous-Alexander’s penetration. SGA, a 6’5” slasher who uses his hawking 6’11” wingspan to score 10.2 driving points (on average), is utterly stymied by Allen’s excellent ball-pressure and forces up a wild running hook that barely grazes the rim.
This wasn’t the last time Allen haunted a shifty Thunder guard like an uncompromising shadow. Here, Allen gets caught in a switch with the Point God, Chris Paul, in what – at first – appears to be a cruel game of Twister. Yet again, Brooklyn’s rim-running center breaks outside of his mold, shifting his feet like a DDR fanatic with two NOS energy drinks in his system, ultimately forcing Paul to pick up his dribble and kick out to Gilgeous-Alexander in a subtle sign of defeat.
Apparently, Jarrett Allen came in contact with whatever passing bug infected Rodions Kurucs on Tuesday. I’ve said it for a while now: passing out of double-teams – especially as a short-roller – should be the next challenge to check off on his NBA bucket list. Here, Allen takes that test head on, flipping his 6’11” frame into the paint after a side pick-and-roll, receiving the pass, and kicking out to the top of the key for an open Taurean Prince three-pointer amidst a sea of OKC arms.
Quick question: Remember that scene from the Iron Giant when Hogarth learns the full extent of the extra-terrestrial being’s powers? A refresher: While being chased by a school of misguided fighter pilots, with Hogarth in his arms, the Iron Giant trips over telephone wires to avoid an oncoming school bus of children, thereby tumbling over a sea-wall cliff. As the two fall toward their tragic demise, buttons on the small of the giant’s back illuminate and roaring flames project from his feet. Without notice, the pair of best friends explode in the opposite direction – away from the choppy waters. “You can fly?” Hogarth screams in disbelief. Rising higher, he repeats himself again, prouder now, “YOU CAN FLY!!!!”
Now take that dubious enthusiasm and go ahead, multiply it by two; that’s how I felt while witnessing Allen spin into a skip-pass for a wide-open Taurean Prince three.
Last but not least, a gem in the form of an ancient post-move highlight. Just this week, the Nets gained some notoriety in a recent Kevin O’Connor column. KOC pointed out (and I still can’t believe this is a real statistic) the Nets have ran just 14 post-up plays all season. All season! While this wasn’t, per say, a real-deal post-up, Allen exhibited distinguishable flair on this pivot into a jump-hook fake, re-pivot and spin, resulting in a lefty lay-in.
To be clear, I have no idea if Allen can ever capably become a back-to-the-basket presence. But in this instance alone, he looked… shoot, he looked balletic.
Tuesday’s outcome was disappointing in its essence, yes, but there is reason for tempered hopefulness. Brooklyn’s future frontcourt made it known to the world: We’re back and we’re ready for the challenge. For Kurucs, this meant handing out 3 more assists than his average; Allen, meanwhile, capably guarded smaller players on switches and dished some pretty dimes of his own.
Now let’s see if Brooklyn’s pair of 21-year-olds can make this performance replicable.