For the first time in what feels like forever, the Brooklyn Nets caught a break on Tuesday night.
Unless, of course, you count their biggest break of all—playing in the downtrodden Eastern Conference.
Not that they should've needed this particular turn of fortune north of the border. The Nets were sitting on a 15-point lead on the Toronto Raptors with just over three minutes to play in the fourth quarter. But a spate of stagnant offense and porous defense paved the way for a 14-0 Raptors run to close the gap to within a single, precarious point.
Luckily for Brooklyn, Toronto proved even more incompetent than did the Nets in the closing moments. The Raptors let the Nets run 12 precious seconds off the clock before sending Shaun Livingston to the line, where he hit one of two. Toronto's final possession was anything but a thing of beauty, with Rudy Gay pounding the air out of the ball before driving and kicking the ball beyond the three-point line to...Amir Johnson?
Johnson predictably clanked the attempt and, after some wrestling for the rebound, the Nets escaped the Air Canada Centre with a 102-100 win.
Truth be told, you probably didn't need me to recap the final minutes of this game to understand how the Nets are feeling right now. One look at head coach Jason Kidd's immediate post-game reaction should suffice:
The sense of exasperated relief emanating from Kidd's shiny, bald head wasn't the product of just one frustrating evening. This win marked the first time this team and its rookie head coach have been able to exhale since November 15th, when Joe Johnson nailed a game-winner in overtime against his old team, the Phoenix Suns:
Brooklyn had dropped five in a row after that—a skid that coincided with Brook Lopez's ankle injury and had overlapped with most of Deron Williams' recent absence. "Those guys in that locker room finally said they'd had enough," said Kidd after the game (via The Associated Press). "There's a bunch of guys in there with pride and they understood what they had to do tonight."
Injuries and inconsistency have been the topic du jour surrounding the Nets so far this season. Their two best (and most important) players have been beset by maladies, while a third (Kevin Garnett) came into the season on a Paleo-style minutes diet.
"Huge, man, huge," said Garnett of the win. "We've been struggling."
So, too, have Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko—with injuries, anyway. Both were expected to bolster Brooklyn's burgeoning bench.
Somehow, the Nets' reserves have managed to maintain their claim to constituting one of the NBA's most productive second units. According to hoopsstats.com, Brooklyn ranked sixth in the league in bench scoring, at 37.2 points per game, prior to Tuesday's action.
That trend continued in Toronto, with the pine-bound foursome of Mirza Teletovic, Alan Anderson, Tyshawn Taylor and Mason Plumlee chipping in 24 points (on 11-of-21 shooting), 12 rebounds and six assists.
But even those numbers don't tell the entire story. The Nets started two of their usual reserves (Shaun Livingston and Andray Blatche) out of necessity amidst all of their injuries. Blatche scored a team-high 24 points—with five rebounds, two blocks and two steals, for good measures—while Livingston led all participants with seven assists, in addition to his erstwhile stat sheet stuffing (five points, six rebounds, two steals).
More importantly, Brooklyn squeezed strong contributions out of its remaining superstar triad of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson. The two former Boston Celtics combined for 28 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and two steals. Johnson, on the other hand, followed up his season-high 34-point effort in Brooklyn's last loss, to the Detroit Pistons, with 21 points at the Raptors' expense.
"No matter how pretty it was, we pulled it out," said Johnson, presumably between sighs of relief.
It was the sort of all-around effort (through the first 45 minutes, at least) that the Nets had expected to see, night in and night out, when this star-studded group came together this past summer. Prior to that final, hair-raising stretch, the Nets had shredded the Raptors' defense (52.7 percent shooting from the floor), stifled Toronto's own iso-heavy attack (42.3 percent shooting) and owned a 38-29 advantage on the boards.
Granted, the Raptors are nobody's idea of an elite team. Handling them for the majority of the game is hardly worth writing home about for Brooklyn.
But a win's a win, especially when it comes against an Atlantic Division foe. The Raptors, at 6-8, still sit atop that five-team heap. The Nets, though, are just two games behind.
Which means that a team that's won just four of its first 14 games this season is within striking distance of a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. That's as much a product of the East's overall futility as anything else.
At present, only two teams on that side of the bracket—the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers—can reasonably count themselves among the league's elite. The Chicago Bulls were expected to be there before Derrick Rose suffered yet another season-ending knee injury last week.
Which Eastern Conference team has been the biggest disappointment so far?
Not surprisingly, the Bulls have dropped their last four games in a row to slip back below the .500 mark. That leaves the Atlanta Hawks, who got pummeled by the Orlando Magic on Tuesday, as one of just three teams in the East with winning records.
The New York Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks, both of which expected to crack the postseason picture in 2014, have fallen on hard times on account of major injuries and emergent roster inefficiencies. The Detroit Pistons, the Washington Wizards and the Charlotte Bobcats have all worked their way into the playoff hunt for now, albeit while underwhelming most of the way.
And don't even get me started on the calamitous Cleveland Cavaliers, who, like the Nets, have already resorted to a closed-door, clear-the-air meeting as a last-ditch attempt to turn things around.
But that's the point here, isn't it? As bad as the Nets have been thus far—according to NBA.com, they rank 22nd in offensive efficiency and dead-last in defensive efficiency—their straits could be so much more dire.
Truth be told, this team was bound to struggle to some extent coming into this campaign. For all the big, new names on the marquee and the bloated, $102-million payroll that came with them, Brooklyn was always going to need time for those players to coalesce into a more cohesive whole.
Especially with Kidd, who retired as a player at the end of last season, having to learn how to be an NBA head coach on the fly.
Chances are, Kidd's grasp of his new job will strengthen as the campaign progresses. He'll learn the ins and outs of coaching (i.e. setting rotations, apportioning minutes, massaging egos, running practices, drawing up plays, etc.) and lean on Lawrence Frank to fill in the gaps.
The same goes for the roster at his disposal. In all likelihood, Lopez, Williams, Kirilenko and Terry will heal up at some point in the next few months and Garnett and Pierce will get in a groove. It's not difficult, then, to see this team eventually getting its act together.
Even last year's Los Angeles Lakers, disappointing disaster though they were, managed to finish last season with 28 wins in its final 40 games, in a Western Conference that was leaps and bounds ahead of where the East is now in terms of sheer schedule difficulty.
The Eastern Conference should (in theory) put up less and less resistance as the season rolls along and more squads opt to "tank" rather than finish just outside of the playoff picture. That includes the Raptors, whose odd collection of tradeable assets could be ripe for plucking once the many pretenders are officially sifted away from the pinch of contenders in the East.
The Nets may have been lucky to win a game in which they played so poorly during crunch time, but don't expect it to be the last occasion on which we see Brooklyn—amidst a weak Eastern Conference and with plenty of room beneath its single-season ceiling—catch a break.
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