Now that the Brooklyn Nets have virtually clinched a playoff spot, it's appropriate to analyze their potential matchups for the first round of the postseason.
The Eastern Conference boils down to three tiers. There are the two season-long contenders: the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. There are the four middleweights currently jostling for position: the Nets, the Chicago Bulls, the Toronto Raptors, and the Washington Wizards. And there are the handful of teams fighting for the two final playoff spots: the Charlotte Bobcats, the Atlanta Hawks, the long-shot New York Knicks, and the longer-shot Cleveland Cavaliers.
Due to this setup, it's only realistic for the Nets to end up facing one of the other three teams currently making up the third through sixth seeds. It is impossible for them to climb to the top two seeds and improbable that they'll fall to the bottom two.
Thus, the Nets will draw the Bulls, the Raptors or the Wizards in the first round. Here's how Brooklyn sizes up against each of these teams.
The Unfavorable Opponent
The Nets want to avoid the Bulls in the first round. Actually, most teams would like to avoid the Bulls all together in the playoffs.
Chicago, left for dead after Derrick Rose's knee injury early in the season, has somehow resurfaced as a contender in the Eastern Conference. For all the talk about the Nets' turnaround since January 1, the Bulls are 29-14 in the new year themselves.
Plus, they play an inspired brand of basketball, especially in clutch situations. Joakim Noah's incessant trash-talking and Carlos Boozer's unhinged bellowing seem to rev up this team, creating a psychological obstacle for opponents.
How else can you explain their ability to play such a competitive series with the eventual champion Miami Heat in last year's playoffs, despite being grossly overmatched on paper?
They also have the Nets' number recently. Not only did they bully Brooklyn for two victories this season, but they snagged a Game 7 victory on the Nets' home floor in last season's first round, without a doubt the low point of the newly-located franchise.
It's not just about mind games, though. The tough interior combination of Boozer and Noah could cause problems for the Nets, who are 8-16 against top-10 rebounding teams and 9-14 against top-10 blocking teams, per 82games.com.
The Bulls are one of the league's better teams on the boards, ranking fifth in rebound rate, while the Nets are the second-worst by that measure. That sounds like a recipe for some easy putbacks for Chicago and some one-and-done possessions for Brooklyn.
Chicago also has arguably the NBA's best on-ball defender in Jimmy Butler. Butler leads the league in opponent's production, per 82games.com, despite often having to guard the other team's best player.
Joe Johnson's penchant for knocking down clutch shots in one-on-one scenarios could be tempered with Butler guarding him. All of this adds up to a team the Nets would like to steer clear of in the postseason.
The Favorable Opponent
The Raptors may be a few games ahead of the Nets in the race for the Atlantic Division crown, but they still pose as a favorable matchup for the playoffs. The season series ended in a tie at two games apiece. However, if the Nets had been able to convert a late inbounds pass in the teams' third matchup, Brooklyn would have won the head-to-head advantage.
The Raptors' relatively slow tempo will play into Brooklyn's similarly unhurried style. Brooklyn prefers to set up their half-court schemes over engaging in a fast-paced, run-and-gun shootout.
The Nets are 25th in the league with under 94 possessions per game, and they are 17-6 when facing opponents who also tend to slow down the game, per 82games.com. The Raptors, 22nd in the league in pace factor, fit that criteria.
While Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson are certainly serviceable big men, Toronto's real strength is the athleticism of their wingmen, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, and the perimeter shooting of their point guard, Kyle Lowry.
The Nets are better equipped to handle this formidable trio than they are a high-level frontcourt like Chicago's. Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston are both large guards who can stick with the likes of Lowry and Ross, and emerging center Mason Plumlee is more skilled at protecting the rim from someone like the high-flying DeRozan than he is at bodying a big man in the post.
Finally, the Raptors' inexperience could play a deciding factor under the bright lights of the postseason. The entire Toronto roster has played a combined 156 playoff games, while the Nets' Paul Pierce alone has a whopping 136 to his name.
Toronto's youth has allowed the team to stay healthy during the regular season, but it could be a weakness in the postseason when it helps to have played some high-pressure games. If someone's heart is thumping in crunch time, it's more likely to be a youthful Raptor than a veteran Net.
The Unpredictable Opponent
It's difficult to definitively categorize a potential matchup with the Washington Wizards. They rank 18th in rebound rate and 17th in pace factor, meaning they won't play toward or away from Brooklyn's strengths in either case.
They have a prolific backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but they can also find points in the paint, especially if Nene returns from an injured MCL in early April, as is expected.
The Wizards did sweep the season series against the Nets, but two of those victories came before Brooklyn's midseason renaissance. The third victory came on March 15 in a game that was tied with less than three minutes to play.
The equilibrium doesn't stop there. The Wizards have almost an identical record at home (19-17) as they do on the road (19-18). They have guys like Trevor Ariza and Drew Gooden who played major minutes in the NBA Finals, and guys who have never stepped on the court for a postseason game (Wall and Beal).
In fact, it's not too hard to envision a winning formula for each team. On one hand, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if the first round became Wall's springboard to the next tier of superstars. His numbers are up across the board this season, and he is easily the best point guard of the three the Nets might have to deal with.
Williams' size is neutralized by the 6'4" Wall, and the Wizards are too good at perimeter shooting for Brooklyn to swarm him with double teams. If Wall scores 25 points per game and the Wizards steal one at the Barclays Center, they could be moving on to the second round.
Let's take a more pro-Brooklyn approach. Postseason games are often more tightly contested than those in the regular season. Better combatants leads to close finishes, which favors the Nets. Brooklyn has proven adept at finishing off opponents in the fourth quarter, in part because head coach Jason Kidd has shown some late-game creativity.
The Wizards, conversely, struggle in those situations. As B/R's own Michael Pina points out, the Wizards only shoot 39.3 percent from the floor and 29.2 percent from beyond the arc in the final five minutes of games with a score differential of five points or less. The Nets, for comparison, shoot 38.2 percent from downtown in those situations. It would appear the Nets have the advantage if several games in the series go down to the wire.
The Nets have championship dreams following their resurgence from a miserable start to their season. However, Brooklyn must take the upcoming playoffs one step at a time. The initial step will be their first round series. The aforementioned matchups will decide how difficult that step is.