5 Things to Watch for During Brooklyn Nets' Final Games

Thomas Duffy@@TJDhoopsFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2014

5 Things to Watch for During Brooklyn Nets' Final Games

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets are weird.

    Over the summer, they looked like a championship contender after going all-in on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

    Then they started playing—and were absolutely dreadful. The most expensive team in NBA history came out of the gate with a 10-21 record.

    But after we rang in the New Year, something magical happened. The Nets started playing as well as they should’ve been all along.

    Since January 1, Brooklyn has gone 20-8 and cleared the .500 hurdle for the first time all season on March 5.

    After a nearly unwatchable beginning to the year, there’s a ton to keep an eye on over the course of Brooklyn’s remaining games.

5. Piling Up the Wins

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    In the team’s final 23 games, Brooklyn will face eight opponents with winning records.

    During that stretch, the Nets will play the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics—all of whom are terrible—twice a piece.

    Needless to say, the Nets are going to continue winning.

    Deron Williams is playing like the old (healthy) D-Will, averaging about 18 points, five assists and two steals a game since February 19.

    Plus, the Nets added backcourt depth by trading two scrubs (Jason Terry and Reggie Evans) for a young guy who can play in Marcus Thornton.

    Brooklyn is clicking on all cylinders, and is going to be compensated for a grueling early-season schedule with a string of cotton-soft opponents to close the year.

4. Emergence of Marcus Thornton

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Since being acquired from the Sacramento Kings at the trade deadline, the 26-year-old Thornton has given the Nets about 14 points a game while shooting over 47 percent from the field.

    Jason Kidd has thrown the former LSU star right into the fray, giving him an average of over 22 minutes in his first four games with the team.

    A career 35.8 percent three-point shooter, Thornton will give Brooklyn some backcourt life from someone other than Shaun Livingston and D-Will. He gave the Kings close to 13 points a game last season while connecting on nearly 43 percent of his shots from the field.

    Thornton, a 2-guard, gives the Nets’ backcourt a youthful body capable of heavy minutes if needed. Per Synergy Sports, the 6’4”, 205-pound shooter has also been effective on the defensive end, holding opponents to less than 32 percent shooting in man-to-man situations since coming to Brooklyn.

    As the season wears on, Kidd’s primary objective is to not only get his team to the postseason, but to get there healthy. Having Thornton on the roster gives the rookie coach the flexibility to mix-and-match lineups according to the opponent, and even reduce the minutes of the other slightly older, more injury-prone ball-handlers.

    The more playing time the youngster gets, the better he’ll be. Expect Thornton’s role to continue growing as the season goes on.

3. Never-Ending Jason Collins Saga

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    Jason Collins is a brave man who will go down in history as the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American sports.

    That’s awesome, and Collins deserves all of the respect in the world for his courage.

    But on the basketball court, he’s average.

    In his first six games with the Nets, Collins totaled three points, six rebounds and 13 fouls. But he had what seemed to be thousands upon thousands of stories written about him.

    Collins has never been a spectacular player, but has made a 12-year NBA career mainly out of doing things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Setting screens, playing defense and serving as a decent role player have been his calling cards.

    Brooklyn signed the 35-year-old to a 10-day contract on February 23, and then gave him another on March 3.

    Teams are only allowed to sign two 10-day deals with a player in a single season, but Tim Bontemps of the New York Post reports that Brooklyn is “all but certain to keep him for the rest of the season.”

    Collins took a bold step that many before him weren’t willing to take, one that many after him will be happy that he did.

    But despite his immense bravery, Collins is not going to make or break the Nets’ season. He deserves to be commended, but the Nets' race for the division should take precedence over any side story at this point.

    Let’s keep that in mind going forward.

2. Less Playing Time for Garnett...Until the Playoffs

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Big Ticket has been relegated to the bench for two consecutive games due to back spasms, and will likely see a significant dip in playing time the rest of the year.

    Until the postseason rolls around, that is.

    After shooting less than 37 percent from the field in his first 28 games of the season, Garnett was clearly rejuvenated by some sort of New Year’s youth potion.

    Since the dawn of January, KG has been shooting 57 percent from the field. And he’s just looked better out on the floor in all areas of the game.

    While he’s not the star that he used to be, Brooklyn can’t make a run in the playoffs without Garnett. The back spasms are a bit alarming, being that Andrei Kirilenko missed a good chunk of the season with a back issue, but Kidd doesn’t seem overly concerned.

    The rookie head coach told Newsday's Roderick Boone that he didn’t believe KG’s injury would be long-term, and went on to praise his power forward’s valiant effort this year:

    I think he's handled Father Time very well. He competes when he's out on the floor at a high level. It might not be for 35 minutes or 40, but what he brings on a nightly basis to the locker room and on the floor are very important to us, and he's been a big part of our success.

    Expect Garnett, who is averaging a career-low 21 minutes per game, to be cautiously used by Kidd once he returns to the court.

    The Nets can beat up on the bottom-feeders that they’ll be playing the rest of the regular season, but they’re going to need Garnett come playoff time.

1. The Battle for the Atlantic Crown

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

    As mentioned previously, the Nets will finish out the regular season with a relatively easy schedule. Brooklyn will face off against sub-.500 teams in 15 of their final 23 contests.

    There’s a problem, though. The Toronto Raptors, who are currently leading the Atlantic Division, have an even smoother schedule the rest of the way.

    B/R’s Walker Harrison pointed out that the Nets need to be more careful than the youthful Raptors injury-wise, which could hinder them from making an inspired push towards snatching the division crown.

    Those dinosaurs from up north are younger, have an easier schedule and don't have to deal with Brooklyn's brutal two-week span that will contain four back-to-back games.

    The Nets, as noted by Harrison, are 4-10 in back-to-backs this season.

    Paul Pierce & Co. smashed the Memphis Grizzlies on March 5, clearing the .500 hurdle for the first time all season. That win marked Brooklyn’s fourth in a row, and made it known that this turnaround is no mirage.

    These are the real Nets. And they have the potential to make a run deep into the postseason.

    Williams told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News that the Nets are “built for the playoffs," and added: "I feel like once we get there, we have a chance against anybody in a [seven]-game series.”

    Hard to argue against that.

    While Williams is likely preaching the truth, catching the Raptors doesn’t look promising. Don’t count the Nets out come playoff time, but pencil in Toronto as the probable Atlantic champs.