The Brooklyn Nets may have lost the battle for New York, but they won the war.
Tuesday night's 109-98 loss to the New York Knicks sealed a 3-1 season-series victory for Brooklyn's crosstown rival. Though they were without star forward Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks played fast and loose—breaking up passes, running the break and shooting three-pointers at a 52.4-percent clip.
Brooklyn, meanwhile, played like the mirror image of the team that ran roughshod over the Eastern Conference throughout much of the second half of the season. They did manage to win the rebound battle—a rarity for this club—but also turned the ball over 20 times and allowed far too many open looks.
Of course, the Nets can take solace that they are already assured of a playoff spot, while their hated foes from Manhattan will be watching the postseason on TV.
Still, the Nets could have clinched the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference with a win. Instead, they came out flat—a surprising outcome from the only team on the court with something left to play for.
Tonight was an example of how not to take a step forward. We were off our game offensively, defensively, all phases of the game and that's not how you want to go into the playoffs.
But could there be something else going on in Brooklyn? This poor stretch of recent play (three losses in their last four games) has opened up the very real possibility that the Nets could fall to the No. 6 seed. If they lose on Wednesday to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Washington Wizards defeat the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn will end up opening the postseason at the home arena of the No. 3 seed.
If the No. 3/No. 4 standings hold, Brooklyn could go from facing the No. 4-seeded Chicago Bulls to matching up with the No. 3-seeded Toronto Raptors with a loss at Cleveland. And that might be just what they want, according to CBSSports.com's Matt Moore: "Interestingly, the Nets seem to be tanking to move to six and avoid Chicago."
While there's no guarantee that Brooklyn is really playing to avoid a matchup with the Bulls, it does beg the question as to which team would make a better first-round opponent.
2013-14 record: 1-2
- Dec. 25: Chicago 95, Brooklyn 78
- Feb. 13: Chicago 92, Brooklyn 76
- March 3: Brooklyn 96, Chicago 80
In many ways, these two clubs are mirror images of one another. Both are veteran teams that prefer to play at a slow pace. Both have really taken off since New Year's, posting the two best records in the Eastern Conference in 2014.
But Chicago is the stronger defensive team, whereas the Nets have a bit more balance.
The Bulls will have the clear advantage in the frontcourt. Center Joakim Noah might be the second-best player in the conference at the moment, and power forward Taj Gibson might win the Sixth Man of the Year award.
That being said, Brooklyn has an emerging weapon in rookie center Mason Plumlee. The big man from Duke has been on fire of late, averaging 12.1 points and 6.0 rebounds on mind-blowing 81.8 percent shooting.
Plumlee might have to be a big factor if Brooklyn is to prevail.
2013-14 record: 2-2
- Nov. 26: Brooklyn 102, Toronto 100
- Jan. 11: Toronto 96, Brooklyn 80
- Jan. 27: Toronto 104, Brooklyn 103
- March 10: Brooklyn 101, Toronto 97
If this is the series Brooklyn wants, they might be in for a bit of a disappointment. By the numbers, Toronto has been the best team of the three. They have been by far the most balanced team, finishing in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per Basketball-Reference.com. (Brooklyn is currently 14th in offensive rating, 18th in defensive rating).
Even during Brooklyn's scorching-hot run in 2014, the Raptors have not only stayed with them but have also actually posted a far higher net rating:
While the Raptors can't match Chicago's frontcourt, they have perhaps the most dynamic guard pairing in the league in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Brooklyn point guard Shaun Livingston will have his hands full as the team's designated perimeter stopper, meaning at least one other Net guard will have to step up his game on defense.
In terms of intangibles, Toronto might have an advantage in simply being overlooked by much of the basketball world, per the New York Post's Tim Bontemps:
There's also the fact that most would expect the Nets to win that series, leaving Toronto with absolutely no pressure but to go out and play— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 16, 2014
This may be a classic case of "pick your poison," but in the end, the Bulls probably hold a slight edge over Toronto.
While the Raptors have been a top-10 defensive team over the course of the season, they quite simply haven't played that kind of defense of late. They rank a poor 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating over the last month, giving up 107.7 points per 100 possessions.
Unfortunately for Brooklyn, they have not been much better over that period, ranking 22nd and surrendering 107.5 points per 100.
The Bulls, meanwhile, have been tops in the NBA with an amazing 97.9 defensive rating. Between that defense, the greatness of Noah and the coaching genius of Tom Thibodeau, Chicago will prove the toughest matchup.
But make no mistake: Either one of these teams could take a first-round series from the Brooklyn Nets. They came into this season with championship aspirations, but they will have to do some serious work just to meet the likes of the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the conference semis.
All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.