What a difference a week has made for the Brooklyn Nets.
Since suffering through the humiliation of a 30-point loss on their home floor to the crosstown rival (and similarly stink-tastic) New York Knicks, the Nets have rattled off three straight victories—their first winning streak of any length through the first month-and-a-half of the 2013-14 NBA season—including Thursday night's 102-93 near-thrashing of the Los Angeles Clippers.
At long last, Brooklyn is starting to look like something more closely resembling a $100 million team. Deron Williams is finally healthy again and playing like the team's MVP. “Deron’s play is just dictating how we’re coming out and starting games," said Kevin Garnett to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck after the win over L.A. "He’s pushing the pace, he’s directing, he’s leading. He’s being Deron Williams. I really feel like that’s the difference.”
The return of Paul Pierce, KG's Boston Celtics bro, has been a boon to Brooklyn's bench. The Nets have actually owned their last two third quarters, though according to NBA.com they're still the second-least-efficient team in the league during the first frame after halftime.
Everyone seems to have been energized by Jason Kidd's decision to depose lead assistant Lawrence Frank—most notably Kidd himself. "When all the changes were made, the first thing you notice about Jason is he took charge and trusted in who he was," Garnett added (via ESPN's Brian Windhorst). "We kind of backed that up by just showing a better effort and coming out and believing in what he's saying to us."
Which means we should all believe in Brooklyn, right? I mean, all's right with the world now that the Nets are within a game of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference...
Let's not drown ourselves in a vat of Kool-Aid just yet, folks. Not to be a Negative Ned or anything, but you don't have to look too hard to find Swiss-cheese-size holes in the Nets' recent success.
You could even start with last night's "Ubuntu" reunion. The Clips were once again playing without three key members of their wing rotation: Matt Barnes (left-eye surgery), J.J. Redick (broken right hand, torn elbow ligament) and rookie Reggie Bullock (sprained ankle).
Without those three, L.A. had to lean on the likes of Willie Green and Stephen Jackson, the latter of whom was signed off the scrapheap earlier this week to ensure that Jamal Crawford could stay put as the Clips' sixth man.
Keep in mind, too, that the Clippers were nothing if not road weary. They'd won an emotional game in Boston the night before, one that marked Doc Rivers' triumphant return to TD Garden for the first time since he switched coasts this past summer.
L.A.'s trip to Brooklyn was the sixth leg of a seven-game eastward swing that's tied for the longest such sojourn on the Clippers' schedule this season; only their annual Grammys trip can compare.
As for the Nets, they'd been home for pretty much the entire week and had fit just three games into the same span of time in which the Clips knocked out five of their own. In other words, it would've been a disappointment if Brooklyn hadn't pulled this one out.
And it's not as though the Nets had knocked off world-beaters prior to their last outing at the Barclays Center, either. Their three-game upswing began with wins against the Milwaukee Bucks, who own the worst record in the East and the worst per-game point differential in the NBA, and the Celtics, who still lead the Atlantic Division only because someone has to.
Of course, wins are wins, and you can't fault the Nets for beating the teams in front of them—especially when they'd been blown out left and right by seemingly every team under the sun in the weeks leading up to their current streak.
Even so, it's too soon to say that all is finally right with Brooklyn. Jason Terry's been sidelined by a bruised left knee for the past three weeks. Andrei Kirilenko could be out until January with a bad back. Even the win over L.A. came at a cost to Brook Lopez, who re-sprained his troublesome left ankle in the second half.
The loss of Lopez could be particularly problematic as the Nets attempt to extend their streak against the Detroit Pistons, with their massive front line, on the road on Friday.
In a weird, almost counterintuitive way, though, these circumstances can be spun as positives. The Nets are playing well now in spite of the fact that the two players who were expected to lead their second unit are still on the shelf.
Those absences have freed up opportunities for other, lesser-known members of Brooklyn's roster to strut their stuff. Pierce's switch to the reserves came about in part because of the work that Alan Anderson did on both ends of the floor in The Truth's stead. Andray Blatche, who stole the show with 21 points, nine rebounds and three assists against the Clips, has been Brooklyn's most consistent contributor off the bench all year.
Rookie Mason Plumlee's size, strength and athleticism have made him an asset among the reserves. Shaun Livingston, the continuance of whose career is nothing short of a miracle in light of his own horrific injury history, has performed admirably when called upon to fill in for D-Will and Terry.
You could argue (perhaps even convincingly) that the Nets' early season struggles haven't all been for naught. In their journey to and from rock bottom, they've discovered depth that even they might not have anticipated and forged a greater sense of unity through the fire of coaching controversies and plagues of injury.
Don't get me wrong: The Nets still have a long way to go before they can comfortably say that they've dug themselves out of their previous pit of despair. An 8-14 record is nothing to be proud of, even less so when the team responsible for that mark is far and away the most expensive in the NBA today.
But for all of their foibles and fumbles, the Nets are still only a game out of first place in the Atlantic Division. Say what you will about the purpose of divisions—they wouldn't seem to have one—but such an ascension would grant Brooklyn the fourth seed in the East, thereby putting the Nets precisely where many (including yours truly) had pegged them to be prior to the start of the season.
Let's not forget either that the Nets, healthy or not, are still very much a work in progress. Chances are they're only going to get better as Kidd gets the hang of this whole "coaching" thing (without Frank around to undermine him). His decision to switch to more aggressive pick-and-roll coverages on one end and use more of those sets to his team's advantage on the other—with D-Will, a master of the two-man game, back in action—played a pivotal part in the Nets turning a 12-point first-quarter deficit into a 23-point lead in the early portions of the fourth quarter against the Clips.
Beyond X's and O's and analytics, Brooklyn's players simply need time to acclimate to a neophyte like Kidd in the huddle and to one another on the court. Chemistry can't be concocted overnight and takes even longer to develop when a team's constituent parts aren't able to play together consistently.
Winning certainly helps in that regard. Now, instead of solely focusing on what they're doing wrong (and having the local media remind them at every waking moment), the Nets can draw confidence from what they're doing right while also striving to improve each day.
Better yet, Brooklyn will have ample opportunity to keep the good times rolling in the week to come. Even if Lopez has to sit on Friday, the Nets should have little trouble scoring against a Pistons defense that ranks among the bottom 10 in the league in points per possession allowed (per NBA.com). After that, the Nets will play twice against the fast-fading Philadelphia 76ers, with a home game against the short-handed Washington Wizards sandwiched in between.
That stretch should allow the Nets to build on the success they've tasted of late in anticipation of their first matchup of the season with the East-leading Indiana Pacers on Dec. 23. Win or lose, that game will likely serve as a measuring stick of sorts, against which the Nets can more clearly determine how far they've come and how much further they have to go to get to where they want to be.
What a difference, then, another week could make for the once-reeling, now-healing Brooklyn Nets.
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