In the Eastern Conference there's the Miami Heat and everyone else. After an astonishing 27-game winning streak, the Heat (59-16) have locked up the East’s No. 1 seed.
LeBron James and company look as dominant as ever.
Behind the Heat sit the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and the Nets. It’s a group of equal caliber teams that are capable of beating one another on any given night.
Brooklyn probably doesn’t have what it takes to keep Miami from advancing to a second consecutive NBA Finals.
But the Nets do have a few things working in their favor.
Deron Williams is finally healthy, confident and playing like a superstar, Reggie Evans has emerged as one of the best rebounders in the league and All-Star Brook Lopez is a matchup nightmare on both ends of the floor.
These advantages could help Brooklyn separate from the rest of the pack and at least get the opportunity to challenge Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It’s no secret Deron Williams was struggling throughout the first half of the season. His battle with nagging ankle injuries, fatigue and criticism were well documented. But those who’ve followed the Nets closely know that those days are now a distant memory.
Brooklyn’s superstar floor general is back and better than ever.
Just look at his post All-Star break numbers.
In his last 22 games, D-Will is averaging 22.6 points on 47.3 percent shooting. Throughout the 50 games before the break he averaged just 16.7 points on 41.3 percent shooting. (via ESPNNewYork.com)
More importantly, No. 8 finally looks totally healthy. He made a dunk in Wednesday night’s game at Cleveland for the first time all season. He then attempted a ridiculous monster jam on Thursday night at the Barclays Center. Williams wouldn’t have even thought about trying that a month ago.
On Wednesday he told the New York Daily News that he won’t need a fourth round of cortisone shots in his ankles.
ACL injuries to Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose mean the Nets will be the only team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs with an elite point guard. This could be a big advantage for Brooklyn.
Another advantage the Nets have is the rebounding machine that is Reggie Evans.
Since arriving in Brooklyn, Evans has been an absolute beast on the glass. He's averaging 10.7 rebounds per game and has pulled down at least 20 boards in seven games.
The 32-year-old grabbed a career-high 26 rebounds against the Portland Trailblazers on March 27.
Evans is the main reason the Nets rank third in the NBA in rebounding differential (+3.6) and sixth in offensive rebounds per game.
He’s a fascinating player because he averages just 4.3 points per game and shoots 47 percent from the charity stripe. The NBA hasn’t seen anyone like Evans since Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman.
Injuries to Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah and Amar’e Stoudamire have handicapped the Celtics, Bulls and Knicks respectively in the rebounding department. Other than the Pacers, the Nets are now the outfit that has a clear advantage in this area.
Brook Lopez will be the most talented center in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
There’s a reason the 25-year-old was selected to his first All-Star Game this year. During his breakout campaign Lopez has averaged 19.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. He’s averaged 22 points over his last 10 outings.
There are very few talented centers left in the modern NBA. and the Nets are lucky to have one of them.
Lopez’s offensive game has rapidly evolved over the past year. In his fifth season, he now possesses an excellent jump shot to complement his post game. He’s got a nice jump hook and is athletic enough to attack defenders off the dribble.
He's also improved his defense. He's great at moving his feet to get in position to draw charge calls and does an exceptional job of using his large frame and length to contest shots in the paint.
At seven feet, Lopez will present matchup problems against smaller teams like the Celtics and Heat. He dropped 28 points on the Joakim Noah-less Bulls on Thursday night.
If the Nets are able to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, it will be because of Deron Williams’ masterful passing and scoring, Reggie Evans’ uncanny rebounding prowess and Brook Lopez’s interior dominance on both ends of the court.
Brooklyn will need all three players to be at the top of their game to have any prayer of beating the Heat in a seven-game series.
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