The Brooklyn Nets are back in the postseason and gearing up for a first-round playoff series for the first time since 2007.
The fourth-seeded Nets will host the shorthanded Chicago Bulls in Round 1 this spring, playing Games 1 and 2 inside the brand new Barclays Center, which will host its first NBA playoff game on Saturday night in prime time on ESPN.
Led by the stellar trio of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, Brooklyn will have the edge, but its hands full against Chicago in the opening round. The Bulls took three of four matchups from the Nets this past regular season and play lights-out team defense that's sure to give the Nets plenty of problems.
Brooklyn must avoid looking ahead to a potential second-round clash with the Miami Heat this postseason, and instead focus on the task at hand, winning four games against one of the league's scrappiest teams in Chicago.
Round 1 Playoff Schedule (courtesy of NBA.com)
|1||Saturday, April 20 at 8 p.m.||Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.||ESPN|
|2||Monday, April 22 at 8 p.m.||Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.||TNT|
|3||Thursday, April 25 at 8:30 p.m.||United Center, Chicago||NBATV|
|4||Saturday, April 27 at 2 p.m.||United Center, Chicago||TNT|
|5*||Monday, April 29, TBD||Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.||TBD|
|6*||Thursday, May 2, TBD||United Center, Chicago||TBD|
|7*||Saturday, May 4, TBD||Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.||TBD|
Record: 49-33, Second in Atlantic Division
Points Leader: Brook Lopez, 19.4
Rebounds Leader: Reggie Evans, 11.1
Assists Leader: Deron Williams, 7.7
Biggest Strength: Point Guard
Williams is a bona fide superstar, and ranked fifth among NBA point guards in both scoring and assists this season, averaging 18.9 points and 7.7 assists per night. He also ranked fifth among all point guards in three-pointers made, knocking in 169 this season.
In four starts against Chicago this season, Williams connected on 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, and with Rose missing from Chicago's lineup all season long, it's not hard to see why.
Williams, having started in 44 career playoff games, will be the Nets' biggest strength in this series, especially with it looking more and more likely that Rose won't return.
Biggest Weakness: Ball Movement
While Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are both huge assets for Brooklyn, the downside of their styles is that the ball can get stuck in their hands from time to time.
The Nets ranked 27th in the NBA in assists per game this season, and sported one of the worst assist-turnover ratios in the league at 1.46. If Brooklyn's offense gets stagnant too often in this series it could spell doom.
Chicago's defensive prowess is remarkable, and the last thing the Nets need to do is assist the Bulls on that end of the floor. Solid, consistent ball movement will force Tom Thibodeau's defense to open up and create excellent scoring chances for the Nets.
Best Matchup: Guard Play
If Rose doesn't return this postseason for Chicago, the Brooklyn Nets will have an overwhelming advantage on the perimeter with stars Deron Williams and Joe Johnson leading the way.
When Johnson is in rhythm, knocking down shots and not forgetting how to get to the rim, this is a dangerous team and will be awfully difficult to stop on the offensive end. Williams and Johnson are combining to score over 35 points per game this year, and if they can continue to reach that mark in this series, they should be set to move on to the conference semifinals.
With Brook Lopez demanding attention in the front court, the two backcourt stars should have plenty of opportunities to hurt the Bulls from outside, on the drive and even in pick-and-roll situations.
Worst Matchup: On the Glass
The Nets are a strong rebounding basketball team, ranking inside the top 10 in the league. But Chicago is a slightly better rebounding team, which gives it a real chance in this series.
Although Brooklyn won the battle on the boards in the first two games against Chicago this year, the Bulls dominated in that area in the most recent meeting, finishing plus-13 on the glass and therefore winding up with 12 more shot attempts than the Nets.
Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are both tremendous rebounders and will need to be held under wraps in this series. After all, it's no secret, in order to win in the postseason you've got to be able to rebound the ball consistently.
Second-chance opportunities lead to second-chance points and in this series points will be difficult to come by, placing an added emphasis on rebounding. The Nets are strong enough on the interior to win this matchup, however.
Key Player: Joe Johnson
Keep a close eye on Joe Johnson in this series as the former Atlanta Hawk holds the key to Brooklyn's success.
In four starts against Chicago this season, the veteran shooting guard has struggled to find his shot, hitting just 43 percent from the field and 31 percent from downtown. He also averaged just 13 points per game against the Bulls this year, while turning the ball over four times per game as well.
If Johnson can take and make smart shots in this series and take good care of the basketball, the Nets will have the upper hand. Otherwise, the Bulls could stretch this series out and pull off the upset.
Prediction: Brooklyn Wins 4-3
How many games will the Nets win in this series?
Based on how tight these teams were during the regular season and the fact that the Nets will have home-court advantage, you've got to like the chances of this series going the distance.
No regular-season meeting was decided by more than 11 points and three of the four games were decided by four or less points. That said, I look for this series to be one of the more even-fought first-round matchups. Both teams are exceptional at keeping the other off the scoreboard, and that will make for some exciting results.
Both of these teams finished with winning records on the road this season as well, and I look for each to win one on the road in this series. Therefore, I like the Nets to squeeze out a win in Game 7 at home to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter.