The Brooklyn Nets’ 2013-14 season appeared to be over before it ever truly began, but the NBA’s most expensive roster has flipped the script by becoming one of the league’s most consistent teams since the start of the new year.
At the end of December, first-year head coach Jason Kidd was firmly planted on the coaching hot seat. Brooklyn was 10-21—well out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture—and had received news that All-Star center Brook Lopez would be lost for the season due to a broken foot.
Against all odds, the Nets have formulated a new identity. They’re 27-10 since Jan. 1 and have racked up key wins against the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat (twice) during that stretch.
Barring a complete collapse, Brooklyn will be postseason bound at season’s end. But can this squad—which was so inconsistent to start the year—play spoiler in the playoffs as a legitimate wild card?
Joe Johnson’s Play
When Joe Johnson earned the seventh All-Star appearance of his career in 2014, some pundits such as Eric Koreen of the National Post cried foul, claiming that others such as Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry and Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers were subsequently snubbed.
Johnson’s numbers prior to the All-Star break certainly didn’t provide him with an overwhelming case for the honor. In fact, he was actually stunned to hear he had been named to the All-Star team.
“I was somewhat (surprised),” Johnson said, per Roger Rubin of the New York Daily News. “I wasn’t expecting it, honestly.”
Despite posting average stats in the first half of the season, “Joe Cool” has been far more efficient since All-Star weekend.
He’s raised his level of play in March by averaging 17.7 points on 50 percent field-goal shooting and a 47.7 percent clip from three-point range. Those scoring numbers accompany 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
Johnson also earned NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for his torrid stint from March 17 through March 23. The Nets went 4-0 during the week as Johnson averaged 22 points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 54.1 percent from the field and a lava-hot 58.3 percent from long distance.
For the week, @BrooklynNets had a +24.1 NetRtg w/ EC Player of the Week Joe Johnson on the floor, -12.0 w/ him off (team-best differential)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 24, 2014
The Nets are 11-2 in their last 13 games, a streak that prompted Johnson to say the following, per ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo: “It’s been beautiful to watch and beautiful to be a part of. It’s a great feeling that we can be playing so well so late in the season. This is what you would want. This would be the ideal situation as a team. It has been pretty good for us, but we are not satisfied.”
Despite an impressive run of team success, Johnson knows that the team will ultimately be judged by what it is able to do come playoff time. The Nets are playing extremely well behind the 32-year-old’s stellar performances, but the goal in Brooklyn is making a playoff run.
Still Not At Full Strength, Emergence of Role Players
Perhaps the most impressive variable about the Nets’ 180-degree turnaround is that Brooklyn has managed to win games consistently without key rotational cogs.
Losing Lopez for the season was a massive blow to the roster’s overall talent, but Coach Kidd managed to turn that setback into a positive by embracing small-ball lineups.
By inserting Shaun Livingston into the starting five beside Deron Williams, the Nets have two dynamic guards on the court who are capable of handling the ball—much like the Phoenix Suns, who have utilized Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe simultaneously when healthy.
With regard to the undersized lineups, Mazzeo writes:
Can’t rebound? No problem. Just have active hands, get deflections and come away with as many steals as possible to make up for it.
And on offense? Exploit every mismatch as often as possible, and make sure to move the ball from one side of the floor to the other. More passing, less dribbling.
Even when the Nets lost Kevin Garnett due to back spasms—thus testing the team’s frontcourt depth more than the loss of Lopez—they haven’t struggled because role players are stepping up in a big way.
Overall, the Nets are 10-2 during KG’s latest absence. Big man Andray Blatche is averaging 10.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in March, and 24-year-old rookie Mason Plumlee has stepped up by averaging 12 points and 7.3 rebounds during the recent four-game win streak.
In a way, the slew of injuries can be viewed as a blessing in disguise. It has forced role players to take on bigger responsibilities, which will only help their confidence in a postseason setting.
Since Jan. 1, the Nets are holding opponents to 101.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks them sixth in the league according to NBA.com. Only the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have posted better defensive ratings in 2014 than Brooklyn.
“Defensively, guys were switching, were able to keep the ball in front of them and taking the 3-pointers away there in the second half was a big part of our success,” Kidd said after the win, per Mazzeo. “Our defense didn’t break, it might have bent at times, but we got steals and came up with big stops when we had to.”
How far will the Nets go in the 2014 postseason?
The win against Dallas was just another feather in Brooklyn’s proverbial cap. By playing smaller, more athletic lineups, the Nets’ defense was able to switch off screens without being put at a huge disadvantage.
They’ve also been forcing turnovers with shocking regularity, as they're second in the NBA in steals since the new year with 370, per NBA.com. Only the Philadelphia 76ers (385 steals) have been better (although “better” is a loose term, as Philly’s overall defensive package has been dreadful).
As the old saying goes, “Defense wins championships.”
The Nets have a top-10 team in terms of defensive efficiency since January, and their offense has been nearly as solid by scoring 105.6 points per 100 possessions during the same time frame (ranking them 13th).
If Brooklyn continues to be above average on both ends of the floor during the playoffs, you can bet they’ll be a dangerous team that no other contender wants to face.