The Brooklyn Nets overwhelmed the undermanned San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, 103-89. The Spurs jumped out to a 24-17 lead at the end of the first quarter but did not have the firepower to withstand a very balanced Nets offense in the second half.
The win was a far cry from the last time Brooklyn played the Spurs. The Nets ended 2013 with a humiliating blowout loss in San Antonio, 113-92. The defeat was capped off by an incident at the end of the game when many of the Nets walked off the court with 0.2 seconds left, forcing head coach Jason Kidd to call a timeout so the players could return and finish the game.
After the Dec. 31 Spurs loss, Nets forward Paul Pierce vented to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: “It’s embarrassing. I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of this many blowouts in one season already.”
But the Nets have taken off since then, winning 12 of their 16 games since the walk-off incident. The Nets can use this game as a measuring stick of sorts. They might not be facing the same Spurs team that knocked them off in December, but they finally vanquished a club that has dominated them for more than a decade.
By scoring in triple digits against the Spurs on Thursday, Brooklyn snapped a particularly ugly streak, per ESPN Stats:
True, the Spurs were a shell of their usual selves, with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw all out for the game. The shorthanded Spurs were playing their second game of a back-to-back after going to double overtime against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night.
As Sports Illustrated's Brian Mahoney pointed out, the Nets have often struggled to beat the Spurs at full strength:
Do victories like this show the world that the Nets are ready to play with the best, or are they just a decent team on a hot stretch?
How Do the New Nets Stack Up?
The Nets have come into their own thanks to improved health and some savvy roster management from Jason Kidd. Though star center Brook Lopez remains out for the season, the rest of the Nets are as healthy as they have been since training camp.
With Lopez out, Kidd has had success employing smaller lineups with Kevin Garnett playing the center. After the game, Garnett reaffirmed that he is not especially fond of playing the center position, per the Wall Street Journal's Alex Raskin:
But Garnett is ever the good soldier, and he has been willing to play at the 5 for the good of the team.
Statistically speaking, these improved Nets still have a long way to go to get out of the hole they dug for themselves in 2013. Coming into Thursday, Brooklyn ranked just 21st in the NBA in Basketball Reference's simple rating system (SRS), which is designed to measure a team's performance based on strength of schedule and margin of victory, one spot behind the New York Knicks. They ranked 18th in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency.
Those poor overall numbers are still being dragged down by their dreadful performance in the first few months. Since the dawn of the new year, the Nets have improved markedly, particularly on defense.
|A Different Team in 2014|
But just how good are these new numbers when compared to the rest of the league?
The 101.8 defensive efficiency rating would rank fourth in the NBA, a shade ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder. But their improved offensive efficiency rating is still just below average, at 17th in the league.
Margin of victory is often a good indicator of team success, and the 2014 Nets have won their games by an average of 3.9 points. That would rank third in the Eastern Conference, behind the Indiana Pacers (8.15) and Miami Heat (5.40).
Even during their hot streak, the Nets still profile as the third-best team in the East.
Not everyone believes their ceiling is that high, of course. TNT analyst Charles Barkley placed them behind the 24-24 Washington Wizards in a Thursday afternoon conference call, per ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo.
"Listen, you only got two teams in the East: you got the Heat and you got the Pacers," Barkley said. "I actually think probably the Washington Wizards are the third-best team in the Eastern Conference."
Barkley may or may not be right about Washington, but he is correct to say the East is still a two-team conference. The Heat and Pacers are both light years ahead of the rest of the conference, both in terms of overall record and statistical profiles.
Yes, the Nets have beaten the Heat twice this season, including a double-overtime win on Jan. 4, but the Heat haven't seemed particularly interested in the regular season since winning their first title in 2012. The Nets would need to improve even on their January numbers to match up with the likes of Miami and Indiana in the playoffs, and considering the age and injury history associated with their roster, such an improvement is extremely unlikely.
The Nets would be better off focusing on overcoming the Toronto Raptors, and that won't be an easy task either. Not only do the Raptors have a three-game lead over Brooklyn in the Atlantic Division, but they also have been playing just as well as the Nets lately.
Toronto has a 20-11 record since Dec. 8, with an average 5.0-point margin of victory. That's well above what the Nets have been averaging during their recent hot spell, and they've been playing that way for nearly a month longer.
The Brooklyn Nets may have come into this season with league championship aspirations, but they've found themselves in a dogfight for the division title instead. They have the talent to overcome Toronto, but it is by no means guaranteed. A third seed and a playoff series victory are about all the Nets and their fans can hope for.