Where the Suns emerged as one of the NBA’s best feel-good stories in the season’s early going, only to regress, the Nets—who bested their Western Conference foes 108-95 Monday night—have somehow managed to salvage promise from certain peril.
Winners of eight of their last 10, the Nets are peaking at the perfect time, positioning themselves to within two games of the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed and home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
But is this bank-busting roster—a collection of talent poised to cost owner Mikhail Prokhorov somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million next season—good enough to make some serious noise?
Judging by their play these last few weeks, they might well be.
If the NBA has taught us anything over the past three decades, it’s that having a top-tier defense is an absolute must for any serious title contender. In recent weeks, Brooklyn’s D has taken it to a level few would’ve thought possible during the season’s first few months.
How big a turnaround has it been: Through January 1, the Nets were registering the second-worst defensive rating in the league (106.7). Since February 27, they’re second to only the Los Angeles Clippers—another team finding its groove at just the right time—in that category.
And while its offense has remained middling by leaguewide standards, Brooklyn’s efficiency in March (107.4) has taken an equally impressive step forward from its pre-New Year's mark of 101.9
According to the Wall Street Journal’s Alex Raskin, Brooklyn’s bolstered D has its roots in what many believed would be the team’s death-blow: losing All-Star center Brook Lopez to a season-ending injury:
"Without the slow-footed Lopez, Nets defenders have been frantically switching on and off their assignments, applying double teams and trying to suffocate their opponents when they cross half court."
Indeed, the loss of Lopez—while certainly a long-term concern—forced head coach Jason Kidd to toy and tinker with his uniquely deep roster. It might’ve taken a while for Kidd to forge a steady rotation, but Brooklyn’s been gangbusters ever since.
Of the seven Nets lineups that have logged at least 50 minutes, only one is registering a negative net rating—one that includes Lopez, as it turns out.
|Johnson, Williams, Plumlee, Livingston, Pierce||111.3||98.2||13.1||122|
|Garnett, Johnson, Livingston, Pierce, Williams||103.9||88.1||15.9||122|
|Anderson, Garnett, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce||98.4||91.5||6.9||121|
What all of these lineups share in common is a delicate balance of positional versatility, veteran savvy and disruptive length—exactly the kind of combination you want with a defensive scheme that relies so much on smart rotations and hawking passing lanes.
Not surprisingly, the Nets are second in the NBA in points scored off of turnovers (22.8) as well as opponent points off turnovers (14.3) since February 27.
By comparison, last year’s Miami Heat finished the season third and sixth in those categories, respectively.
That is to say, Brooklyn’s development has yielded a time-tested recipe for success, which, if sustained, could propel the team to a surprisingly noisy postseason campaign.
The Nets know exactly what’s at stake, of course. Just listen to forward Mason Plumlee talk about the importance of fixing all the little things in time for the playoffs:
When the Nets lost to the Chicago Bulls in the first round of last year’s playoffs, consistency—or lack thereof, anyway—was one of the biggest reasons why. One night the Nets were tossing up 106 points, the next they were barely breaking 70.
Having Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaun Livingston as secondary offensive weapons to Joe Johnson will certainly help their cause. But it’ll be their ability to get stops down the stretch—something they weren’t able to do near often enough against a depleted, crepe-paper thin Bulls team—that will dictate whether or not the Nets even have a chance at a second-round upset of the Heat or Indiana Pacers.
Which brings us to the subject of seeding—specifically, whether the Nets should be content to stand pat in the No. 6 spot, while taking every opportunity to rest some of their more war-weary soldiers.
Assuming the East seeding holds steady and the Nets dispatch the Toronto Raptors in the first round, they’d likely be pitted next against the Miami Heat, whom Brooklyn has bested in all three of the teams’ meetings thus far.
If, on the other hand, Brooklyn winds up with the No. 4 or 5 seed, that would set it on a collision course with conference-leading Indiana, against which the Nets are 0-4.
Three months ago, the Nets were an unmitigated disaster—a clumsy collection of big names on pace for the annals of wasted hype.
And while Prokhorov’s investment might not yield championship returns, Brooklyn's recent play—both the tangibles and the timing—will most certainly have the East’s basketball brass listening for footsteps and looking over their shoulders.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription only) and current as of March 18, unless otherwise noted.