NEW YORK — It may be kind to call Jason Kidd’s first two months with the Brooklyn Nets a disaster. He appeared unprepared for the challenge. His veteran players were ailing with various injuries. His star players were confused about the system. Kidd didn’t even have control of his own bench; assistant coach Lawrence Frank commanded that department.
That was so last year. The Nets are a sparkling 26-10 since New Year’s Day after a rather easy 114-98 home victory Friday over the Celtics, who are truly playing out the string as their defense is already on summer vacation.
The Nets are streaking, making a serious push for the Atlantic Division title following a 10-21 start. After losing Brook Lopez to a broken right foot, the Nets settled themselves, were blessed with good health, and began to play to their potential.
Now they have emerged as the team no one wants to face in the playoffs, a group of veterans who know how to win and have just enough confidence and fortitude to do it. And that especially includes former Celtic Paul Pierce, who knows all about entering the playoffs as a mid-level seed and reaching the NBA Finals.
The Celtics were the fourth seed in 2010 with a 50-32 record following a tumultuous regular season. They knocked off Miami, Cleveland, and Orlando en route to the Finals, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.
“We’re gonna definitely be the underdog, nobody is talking about us,” said Pierce, who has embraced that role over the years. “We feel like we match up with anybody in the league, especially in the Eastern Conference. Come playoff time, we feel like we can compete with the best of them. We feel like we can be one of the better teams in the East, if not come out of the East. I think we’re going to be able to surprise a couple of teams.”
Pierce and his teammates are less concerned with seeding and more concerned with health and peaking at the right time. The Nets are playing their best ball of the season, and that’s with Kevin Garnett missing the last 11 games with back spasms.
“We’re clicking on all cylinders right now with about a month left,” Pierce said. “Everybody is going with confidence and the good thing in a week or two weeks when Kevin comes back, it just makes us that much more deep. So it’s good that we’re playing this way without a huge piece of this puzzle.”
Playoff experience is paramount for Pierce, who can look to his younger teammates, sit back in his rocking chair, and talk about the good ol’ days when the Celtics consistently defeated higher seeds because they were adequately prepared and rested.
“I can share what my experience is but this is a new team,” he said. “But the thing about this new team is we have a lot of veterans who have been in the playoffs, who understand the type of mentality you gotta be in [for] the playoffs and that’s what great for us. That’s the experience I bring to this ball club. I’ve been in pretty every kind of situation you can think of.”
In December it seemed Pierce was in the midst of a nightmare. He was uprooted from his only professional home and thrown into a win-now situation with the Nets with the aging Garnett at his side but little chemistry and a neophyte coach.
Critics laughed at the combination. The Nets appeared headed for the draft lottery, and with the risk of this crew being dismantled quickly.
“We stayed positive, there was no finger pointing, there was no ‘we need to change this, we need to do this,’ ” Pierce said. “We needed to play a little bit harder and sometimes chemistry takes a little bit longer to get than some other teams.
“It was a unique situation we had [with the Celtics] in ’08. This is a little different now. So it took a bit longer. Now you see the chemistry coming around and it’s beautiful.”
Kidd took his share of criticism because of his lack of experience. The brilliant point guard becoming a head coach seemed like a grand idea in September but it was worth less than Enron stock in December. Kidd remained calm, didn’t panic, understanding that the season is extraordinarily long.
“Things didn’t start off the way we wanted,” Kidd said. “But it’s a marathon. We had a lot of long coaches’ meetings, we had a lot of conversations with players, but there was never a panic of maybe I should’ve kept playing, maybe we should’ve went on vacation a little bit longer. Sometimes you have to face adversity right off the bat and you get to find out who’s really in and who’s really out and these guys in that locker room are truly in and that’s what makes it special.”
Pierce was perhaps one of Kidd’s early critics, calling out the team’s lack of halftime adjustments following a November loss. But that was so last year.
“He gets a majority of the credit,” Pierce said of Kidd. “He stuck with us. He helped us buy into what he was preaching. He’s gained the confidence of the players, not that he didn’t have it before, but we just continued to grow together and that was a big part.”