Don't look now, but the New Jersey Nets are heating up.
They have won five in a row to creep back ahead of Toronto in the Atlantic Division and into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. But the seedings on January 7 aren't what matter. The fact that this team is suddenly playing much better basketball is.
That 'better basketball' serves as an indicator of how important it is to have even a moderately competent front court. For close to 25 games to star the season, the Nets didn't. But with Josh Boone and Sean Williams playing forward and center, this team is playing its best ball of the young season.
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The word has long been out on the Nets' big three: Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter are all very talented, but they are all perimeter players, and both good defensive teams and poor shooting nights can shut the Nets down. Throw in VC's trademark flakiness, and it is no surprise that this has been a very erratic team over the last few seasons.
But the three studs in question are immensely talented, and most nights, all they will need is some help to take opposing attention off of them, and they will be good to go. Some. As in some defense, and some dunking.
There are many pundits who aren't high on Williams and Boone because they don't play particularly pretty games, especially on the offensive end. Neither possesses great touch or is a great shooter, and the character issues about Williams have long abounded. That said, neither Malik Allen nor Jason Collins (their two predecessors in the frontcourt) possess those pretty offensive games either. In fact, neither of those latter two players have much of anything besides experience at this point that makes them assets to the Nets at either end of the floor. Williams and Boone both like to play defense and rebound, and both are capable of setting good hard screens and doing a lot of dunking. Ladies and gentlemen, it is that simple.
Neither of the neophytes (once again, much love to Walt Frazier) is the next coming of greatness at center. But both of them play smart games and know how to produce just enough. Both are averaging upwards of 50 percent shooting on the season and close to double-digit scoring as starters, though they are combining for barely 15 field goal attempts per game between them. Williams blocks 2.45 shots per game as a starter, and Boone has pulled down 8.3 boards per game since entering the lineup.
Boone and Williams are both young players with a lot of energy who love to get up and down the floor. Getting to run with Jason Kidd just means more dunks for both of them. For all his flaws, Vince Carter can be a fairly good passer when he wants to be, and Williams and Boone both know to be ready for opposing defenses to look to double both VC and Richard Jefferson on screen-and-rolls. This has led to no shortage of easy looks for the youngsters, many of which have been converted. Opponents are learning that they will have to at least show some modicum of respect for New Jersey's frontcourt on the interior, which wasn't necessary earlier in the season. This is opening up better looks for the three stars, as they are getting that much less attention, and this makes the entire offense work that much better. Combine that with the difference made by the presence of the long-armed string bean that is Williams and Boone's tenacity on the boards, and suddenly this talented but jump-shooting-reliant Nets team has made a quantum leap at both ends of the floor.
Just as suddenly, five straight wins for the Nets isn't a shock. Which means it is time to start keeping an eye on this team as it begins to make its run.
Even if no one in Jersey is.