With all eyes and spotlights trained on Madison Square Garden, where the New York Knicks are using Phil Jackson to shield themselves from future doubt, the Brooklyn Nets are quietly making the Eastern Conference playoff race one worth watching.
Onset struggles prohibit owner Mikhail Prokhorov's nine-figure product from ever reaching its regular-season potential, but the Nets, injuries and all, are catching fire just in time to salvage earnest postseason hopes.
Once the calendar turned, so did they. The 9-17 team that couldn't figure out how to beat the lowly Philadelphia 76ers is dead. The listless 9-19 team that was massacred on Christmas Day by the Chicago Bulls is gone.
The 10-21 team that was upended by the San Antonio Spurs on New Year's Eve has been replaced by a nigh-unrecognizable cast of winners and playoff-ready mercenaries.
Improved Beyond Recognition
To say the Nets have been a "different" team in 2014 would be an injustice to how dissimilar they actually are.
This side of the new year, they're 25-10, within striking distance of home-court advantage through the first round of the playoffs, having turned Barclays Center into the place opposing teams go to perish.
While NYK owns the back page, the Nets are 25-10 since Jan. 1, in the mix for home court & have turned Barclays into a house of horrors— Josh Newman (@Joshua_Newman) March 20, 2014
In 2014, the Nets are 13-8 against playoff teams from both the Western and Eastern Conference. Over their last 11 games, they've been particularly indomitable, going 9-2, including 5-1 against likely postseason-bound squads.
Oh, and after a victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, they've now won 10 straight at home. No big deal.
Nets get 10th straight home win, beating @bobcats 104-99. D Will had a BIG night w/ 25-3-8; Johnson w/ 20-8-3. Al Jeff led CHA w/ 18 & 12— NBA (@NBA) March 20, 2014
Except, it is a big deal. Wednesday night's win over Charlotte was a reminder that it's a very big deal.
When it looked like the Bobcats were in control, nabbing a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, Deron Williams took over, scoring seven straight points to give Brooklyn the lead for good.
"I happened to be a big part of that, but it could’ve been any of us," Williams said afterward, via the New York Post's Tim Bontemps.
That's the thing about these rejuvenated, inspired Nets: It actually could have been any one of them who provided the fourth-quarter impetus.
It could have been Paul Pierce. It could have been Joe Johnson. Or Shaun Livingston. Or Andray Blatche. It could have been Mason Plumlee for Pete's sake.
The Nets aren't playing the brand of basketball they were supposed to play. Superstars aren't doing it alone. Some of them aren't even playing.
Still, the Nets continue to win against really good teams.
Success by committee has suited them. Not a single player is averaging more than 16 points per game since Jan. 1, and no one is averaging more than 17 over the last 11, per NBA.com (subscription required). Not Williams, not Pierce, not Johnson.
But the Nets are still beating teams like the Bobcats, Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat. They're still within reach of the Atlantic Division title, 2.5 games back of the Toronto Raptors. And they're still drastically improving on both ends of the floor.
|When||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rank||Def. Rtg.||Def. Rank||Net Rtg.||Net Rank|
|Before Jan. 1||101.9||18||106.7||28||-4.8||26|
|Since Jan. 1||105.1||13||101.5||5||3.5||12|
And boom goes the dynamite.
Easy Road Ahead
As with anything that seems too good to be true, we must ask: Is this sustainable?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Absolutely, positively yes.
Exactly half of Brooklyn's remaining games come at home, where it's 22-11 overall, hasn't lost since Jan. 31 and lost just twice since being manhandled by the Bulls on Christmas Day.
While there are no sure things in the NBA, Brooklyn's schedule defies the Association's laws of uncertainty. Let's just call it what it is: easy.
For the Nets, the way they're playing now, it's a cinch, a mere formality before moving on to the bigger, better playoff show.
Believe in Brooklyn
Make like a Justin Bieber "Belieber" and believe in Brooklyn.
Which potential playoff matchup should scare the Nets right now? Be honest.
Nets won again. At what point do we go from considering them much improved to a legitimate threat?— Robin Lundberg (@robinlundberg) March 20, 2014
At the same time, despite the Nets' ugly record against potential first-round opponents, the possibilities are manageable. All of them. And if they were to escape the first round, what awaits them isn't anyone they haven't dethroned before.
Brooklyn has been Miami's kryptonite this season, winning all three of the games played between the two. It seems doubtful that the Nets could contend with the Heat for seven games, but ask LeBron James and friends who they absolutely don't want to face in the first round and, provided they're being honest, chances are Brooklyn tops the list.
Losing all four regular-season bouts against the Indiana Pacers is also of little concern with how both teams are playing lately. Throw Brooklyn and Indiana in a best-of-seven series today, and the Pacers would be hard-pressed to win two games.
No team in the Eastern Conference has won a greater percentage of its games since Jan. 1; the Nets have the fifth-highest winning percentage of 2014, behind only the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets.
No, the Nets aren't suddenly title favorites or expected to come out of the Eastern Conference. Miami and Indiana are still unrivaled top dogs.
But the Nets are winning in every way imaginable—with offense, with defense, without Garnett, without Lopez, etc.—making them impossible to ignore. Rule of thumb also suggests you never, ever want to face Pierce after April 15.
How far are the Nets capable of going in the playoffs?
And so, the Nets are playoff threats, legitimate and booming postseason legionaries who were specifically assembled to ruffle feathers and crumple opposing egos this time of year.
"You’ve got two teams that are a game or a half a game apart," Pierce said after Brooklyn's loss to Washington, via ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk. "I tried to express that to the guys in the locker room, ‘Hey, from here on out these games are like playoff games.’"
The Nets have responded by winning two straight against Phoenix and Charlotte, entering playoff mode a full month earlier than they have to, in time to see the spotlight finally and rightfully shine on them.