Nets-Celtics, Preseason Game 4: What Did We Learn?

The fourth game of the Nets preseason is now over, with the Nets topping the Celtics 82-80.

Here are some takeaways from tonight’s game.

The Lopez/Blatche Combo:

I was extremely encouraged when Jason Kidd decided to start Blatche in place of Garnett tonight, rather than Evans. First, last year’s staff was reluctant to employ the Lopez-Blatche combo despite the great production both bigs provided, and I wanted to see the tandem go to work. Second, Evans is an ideal bench big, but a misfit as a starter: so the move kept him in the right place.

My vision was on full display tonight: the Lopez-Blatche tandem was extremely effective, playing a major role in the Nets strong start tonight. Blatche’s ability to hit the 18 footer opened up the lane for Lopez throughout the first quarter. When Lopez was paired with Evans and Humphries last season, both players lurked near the rim for rebounding opportunities, with their defender in the vicinity. This clogged the lane for Lopez. However, with Blatche stretching the floor, Lopez had plenty of room to operate inside tonight. He scored off postups, off curls, off floaters, the pick and roll, and stepped out to use his jumper. Lopez is the type of scorer that a defense cannot stop unless it loads up, and beats him to his spots. He is big and strong, and if he catches the ball on the move and gets to his spot, the result is a layup or foul.

Lopez also displayed some excellent chemistry with Pierce tonight, often connecting with him for easy layup opportunities both off set pick and rolls, and spontaneously.  This is a good sign going forward, as involving Lopez in movement and action with the Nets perimeter players will make the Nets efficient offensively. If Deron and Joe, and Pierce, can attract attention and then hit Lopez on the move, the Nets will score and score in bunches.

Playing with Lopez helped Blatche as much as it helped Lopez. Blatche capitalized on Boston’s smaller frontline. With openings on the perimeter because the Celtics had to focus on Lopez, Blatche hit jumpers, and was effective in driving to the basket. And with Lopez stretching the floor for him and requiring a defender to be accountable for his presence, Blatche had the pleasure of facing up on his defender, and seeing a relatively open lane before him. Blatche also showed good patience and unselfishness at times. In one situation in particular, Blatche had Bass on an island on the perimeter and worked his patented “snatchback” dribble. Blatche could have taken an inefficient contested long 2 over Bass, but chose not to. The result? He kicked it out to Pierce, who found Lopez for an and 1 opportunity. While Blatche does fall into poor habits with his shot selection on occasion, he has shown progress in that area this season. On a team full of talent, the more Blatche realizes that kicking the ball out beats taking a bad shot, the more success the Nets will have.

Overall, it was apparent from the synergy between Lopez and Blatche that Kidd has worked on using the combination in training camp. Blatche is our third best big, and we will be monitoring Garnett’s minutes and games played all season. That will present ample time for the Lopez-Blatche combination to develop together.

Mirza Teletovic: Will He Earn Playing Time:

After playing well in his first three preseason games, Teletovic struggled tonight in take 4. Offensively, he was errant from the field, and took some ill advised shots. Defensively, he struggled mightily with Wallace in the first half, getting beat routinely for easy opportunities in the paint.

Going forward, Teletovic will need to play better defense if he hopes to break the Nets rotation. Teletovic was a clear negative on that end tonight, an end where the Nets will look to improve upon their rank of 18th last season. With the way he played defensively tonight, he needs to play exceptional offense to justify rotation minutes. That is something that he did not do tonight, and cannot be expected to bring on a nightly basis.

The issues with Teletovic defensively spur interesting debates concering whether Teletovic is a 3 or a 4. Offensively, Mirza plays more like a 3 with his perimeter game. But he clearly struggled with Wallace’s quickness defensively, and that tends to suggest that on that end, he is more of a 4. Kirilenko can play the 3 or the 4, leaving the 3 as a position where there may be more minutes available for Teletovic than at the 4. Based on tonight, he is more of a 4 going forward, but his potential as a bigger 3 who can shoot over other small forwards is interesting.

As for Teletovic offensively, he has a bad habit he developed last season when fighting for minutes: he tends to look for his three pointer too often, and force looks from distance. To an extent, this is understandable. Teletovic was never given a chance last season, so when he got in the game for a couple of minutes, he felt that he had to hit threes to stay on the court, which led to launching whenever he got the basketball. Last year’s staff did not give Teletovic a chance, and I was critical of that. Now that he is getting a chance with Kidd’s staff, he needs to be a little more selective and judicious with his shot taking.

That brings me to my next point about Teletovic. Tele has offensive skills outside of his 3. He scored off a curl tonight, and has the ability to run around screens and hit shots on the run and after taking a few dribbles. He also is a good passer, hitting Plumlee for a dunk late in the game.

Teletovic’s trigger is not as itchy as it was last season as he looks more comfortable on the court, and the result is that we are seeing these other non 3 point shooting skills: his dribble drive, his floater, and his passing, come into bloom. As he continues to play smarter and develop, the hope is that those skills will shine more often – as they did in his games in Europe.

For now, Teletovic is fighting for minutes, and needs to continue to work on his game. If he can become a passable defender, and become more patient with his 3 point shot, he will become harder for Coach Kidd to ignore when looking to his bench for a boost.

At the moment, Kidd knows what he will get with Evans, and I believe that will lead to him seeing the bulk of the minutes behind KG. But Teletovic is not miles away like he was last year: this go round, he’s knocking on the door.

The Defense:

With the Nets’ goal of being top 10 defensively in Kidd’s words, top 3 in KG’s, the defense is something to monitor in the preseason. The Nets held the Celtics to 35.6% shooting, and while Boston will struggle offensively all season and preseason games are typically sloppy on offense, the performance was encouraging. Lopez had two blocks on Bradley in the first quarter. His positional defense has improved, and as long as he is able to slide into proper spots, his length and size make him an asset defensively (though with his slow foot speed, sometimes this is easier said than done and he tends to commit fouls because of being out of position). With Livingston the team’s smallest starter at 6’7” (!), the Nets deflected many passes and frustrated Boston with their length, something that will be fun to watch all season.

While the Nets’ interior defense struggled in the second quarter, it was being anchored by Plumlee in the infancy of his development. That is not much of a concern, as he will not see much playing time in critical spots this season.

Plumlee’s Baby Steps:

Plumlee continues to work hard in the preseason. His inability at the moment to finish and his free throws highlights his rawness, but he has shown the tools that led to his being picked in the first round. He’s long, and he has a decent knack for rebounding the ball. Combine that with his running the floor, and he works hard to have an impact on the court. His teammate, Evans, and Humphries on the other side tonight, have both carved out long careers with less raw talent than Plumlee, by playing hard, bulking up (which Plumlee must do going forward), and becoming elite rebounders and antagonizers of the opposition at their position. That energy is a good model for Plumlee as he continues to build his game as a rookie. Plumlee will see time in the D-League, and in practice with KG. Hopefully, he uses that time well, because he has upside, though we won’t see too much of it this year.

Plumlee did have one awesome play tonight: his stuff on Wallace. The play obviously showed off his athleticism, but also demonstrated his court sense and awareness, as he was able to pull the block off because he read Wallace’s move into the paint.

Chris Johnson’s Excellent Camp:

Tonight was another excellent performance for Chris Johnson, who showed that he belongs in the NBA. While his play could lead to opportunities with other teams, it may also lead to an opportunity with the Nets. The Nets may choose to send him to their D-League affiliate, the Springfield Armor, for the season.

More interestingly, whether before the season or during it, the Nets could decide to open a roster spot for Chris Johnson, by dealing an end of the roster player for a second round pick (to open a roster spot).

While such a result is unlikely, it is possible, because Johnson has performed that well for the Nets in camp.

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