The Brooklyn Nets are playoff-bound.
After a deplorable start to the year, Jason Kidd’s team has been able to find its true identity and hop on the path to the postseason. BKN officially clinched a playoff berth on April 1 with a win over the Houston Rockets.
Paul Pierce is proving once again that he’s the Truth, Mason Plumlee is emerging as one of the best rookies in the league and Kidd—the second coach in NBA history (Tom Thibodeau) to win multiple Coach of the Month awards in his first year on the job—is leaving no drop of Brooklyn's potential untapped.
But while the Nets are seemingly built for the slugfest-style of play that seven-game series usually boil down to, they’re going to need bigger contributions from all areas of the team. After all, this is the playoffs we're talking about.
In order for Brooklyn to reach its maximum potential, three players in particular must raise their games to new heights.
While trading for Pierce and Kevin Garnett was the most buzz-inducing transaction of the 2013 offseason, Brooklyn, with a much subtler move, got an absolute steal in Shaun Livingston.
The 28-year-old guard truly thrived this year for the first time since suffering one of the more gruesome injuries in the history of sports back in 2007.
The former lottery pick (2004) is giving the Nets over eight points, three rebounds and three assists a night, and he has allowed Kidd to implement the small-ball lineup that may have saved the season after Brook Lopez broke his foot.
Livingston doesn’t do anything spectacularly, instead doing many things well—scoring efficiently, making extra passes and being a pest on the defensive end.
But in the playoffs, Brooklyn is going to need a bump in numerical production from Livingston.
In games that he’s broken double digits in the scoring column, the Nets have been 18-9. Therefore, Livingston, averaging just over six shot attempts per game, needs to get more aggressive come playoff time.
Livingston has been tremendously valuable to the Nets in 2014, and he needs to take on a more assertive offensive role once the postseason rolls around.
Slowed by injuries for much of the season, a healthy Andrei Kirilenko will need to turn it up a notch once Brooklyn begins its postseason gauntlet.
Averaging a career-low 18 minutes per game, AK-47 has been able to muster just five points and three rebounds a night this season—the lowest outputs of his 11 years in the NBA.
According to ESPN Stats, Kirilenko is shooting over 56 percent from the field in wins, but 47 percent in losses. Quite simply, the Nets are a better team when Kirilenko plays well.
Kidd has been conservative in handling the 33-year-old’s playing time, giving the veteran forward, hampered by back and ankle trouble this year, 20-plus minutes just three times since March 1.
Nets coach Jason Kidd was asked Thursday who AK-47 reminded him of in terms of skill set.
“I mean, LeBron James,” Kidd said. “And I’m not putting AK in [LeBron's class in terms of talent], but when you talk about guys who fill up the stat sheet, that’s what he does and that’s what he’s always done. From rebounding to assists, points, steals, blocked shots, he’s done it all. That’s the kind of skill set he brings.”
Kirilenko’s first season in Brooklyn hasn’t gone as planned—he's clearly far from LeBron's level—but that should fly right out the window once the playoffs start.
If the 6’9” Russian can give the Nets the versatile scorer and the tenacious defender he’s capable of being, Brooklyn will have a much better shot at making a successful run at the Eastern Conference crown.
With Lopez out for the year and Garnett’s health in question, Kidd has turned to Plumlee, his rookie forward, to own the paint.
And the former Duke standout has done a tremendous job of it.
Mason Plumlee said his block was clean and "at the end of games, you have to earn it."— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) April 9, 2014
Brooklyn held on to win by just a point thanks to the 24-year-old, who has emerged as one of the team’s most important players.
With averages of about seven points, four rebounds and nearly a block per game, Plumlee’s numbers are by no means glamorous. But his value transcends statistics.
The Nets are an older, veteran team with a great deficiency in guys who can make plays at the rim. But Plumlee gives Brooklyn an aerial threat. And he needs to do more of it.
Averaging just over four shots a night, the wildly efficient Plumlee, shooting 64 percent from the field, needs to get more looks at the basket.
Once the postseason rolls around, Garnett’s health will certainly be a crucial piece of BKN’s potential playoff run. But regardless of whether or not KG is on the floor, Kidd will lean heavily on Plumlee on both sides of the ball.
How far can Brooklyn go?
With Plumlee’s rejection, the Nets capped off a four-game regular-season sweep against Miami. Brooklyn is the only team to go undefeated against the Heat this season.
As things currently stand, BKN is set to take on the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Looking down the path a bit, the Nets, should they advance, could potentially meet James and Co. in the conference semifinals.
Crazy stat of the day: Nets are 1st team to ever sweep a LeBron James team in a 4-game season series. (via @EliasSports)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 9, 2014
And as we’ve seen on four different occasions this season, Brooklyn has Miami’s number—largely due to the fact that the Nets show no signs of fear when it comes to the two-time defending champs.
This team is a contender. Forget about the beginning of the season—since January 1, Brooklyn owns the best record in the East and has proved over and over again that what happened before New Year's was an anomaly.
And if Livingston, Kirilenko and Plumlee continue to pick up their games, a trip to the conference finals will be within reach for the Nets.
All stats and information are accurate as of April 9, courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.