5 Factors That Will Decide Brooklyn Nets' Playoff Ceiling

Thomas DuffyFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2014

5 Factors That Will Decide Brooklyn Nets' Playoff Ceiling

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    The Brooklyn Nets are locked into a 2-2 battle with the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, having dropped a crucial Game 4 at the Barclays Center on April 27.

    Brooklyn entered the postseason as the sixth seed after finishing the year with the second-best record in the East following New Year's. But in dropping two winnable games to Toronto, the Nets have done little to solidify the notion that they're legitimate contenders.

    How far can Brooklyn go? If you ask owner Mikhail Prokhorov, his team’s 2013-14 journey could end in a title.

    “Our goal, we only have one goal, the championship,” Prokhorov told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News in early January. “So I am very committed, and I will do my best in order to reach this.”

    Prokhorov added that the Nets would need their stars to align as they chased the Larry O’Brien Trophy. That's true—Brooklyn will depend on big performances from Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Deron Williams.

    However, there are several other factors, both internal and external, that will determine Brooklyn’s ultimate destination.

Rebounding

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    Through the first three games of Brooklyn’s opening series, Jonas Valanciunas was averaging 14 rebounds a night. In Game 2, Toronto outrebounded the Nets 52-30.

    That’s been a common trend this season for Brooklyn, as you’d imagine it would be for a small-ball-oriented team void of a true center.

    Garnett plays with heart every night, but he and rookie Mason Plumlee have struggled to slow down opposing big men.

    According to ESPN.com, the Nets have been the worst of any playoff team on the boards, averaging just 32 rebounds a game with a differential of minus-12.

    Brooklyn is more than likely going to be beaten on the glass every night. It’s just a matter of how well the team will be able to bandage the bleeding.

    If Garnett and Plumleea duo that's combing for fewer than 10 rebounds a gamecan slow down opposing front lines, the Nets will survive.

Health

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    The Nets weren’t the epitome of perfect health all season by any stretch of the imagination. However, while they entered the postseason mildly bruised, the team was in pretty good shape.

    According to Man Games Lost, Brooklyn’s total absences added up to 177 regular-season games in 2013-14 (10th-most in the NBA).

    Garnett’s back, Williams’ ankles and what seemed like Andrei Kirilenko’s entire body proved to be troublesome. Brook Lopez was also lost for the year with a broken foot on December 20.

    The Nets managed to get by, mainly because of their strong bench and deep roster. Shaun Livingston stepped in for Williams, Plumlee stepped in for Garnett and so on—Brooklyn embodied the “next man up” mentality.

    This postseason, coach Jason Kidd will need to monitor the minutes of his veterans to ensure that they’re on the court every night when it matters most.

    Brooklyn withstood a storm of injuries this season, but if one its key players goes down for an extended period in the playoffs, the team could be in trouble.

Clutch Level

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    The first four games of the Nets’ first-round series were all decided by eight or fewer points.

    As is usually the case in the postseason, nearly every contest is coming down to the wire. Brooklyn has the battle-tested, cold-blooded veterans needed to thrive in clutch situations.

    After drilling a pair of jumpers that essentially won Game 1, Pierce trotted down the court yelling, “That’s why they got me here!”

    According to Newsday’s Neil Best, Pierce wasn’t shy about discussing his clutch gene either:

    I don't know, I think it's in the DNA. Everybody doesn't have it. Everybody's not born with it. Can't buy it at Costco or Walgreen's. It's in the DNA.

    Like I said, it's in the DNA. It's in there. There's nothing I can do to let it go. I can't lose it, I can't break it. I mean, it's in there. It's in there.

    But in Game 2, the Nets were down a bucket with about 25 seconds left on the clock. Pierce misfired on wide-open three-ball from the corner and the Nets fell 100-95.

    In Game 4, Pierce was called for a charge, hit the side of the backboard on a jumper and turned the ball over in the game's closing minutes as Brooklyn went without a field goal for the final 6:12.

    That is not why the Nets brought him here.

    Brooklyn needs the Truth, along with Joe Johnson and Williamswho missed some crucial free throws down the stretch of Game 3to step up when it matters most.

    The Nets don’t have a team that’s going to win in blowouts. Because of that, Mariano Rivera-type closing performances from their biggest stars are a necessity.

Series Length

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    Series length, which goes hand in hand with overall health, will be another huge factor.

    The best-case scenario would've obviously been sweeping the Raps, or even beating them in five.

    If Brooklyn can do it in six, that’s still okay. If the series goes the full seven games, the Nets might be in some trouble against the well-rested Miami Heat in the conference semis.

    That's assuming the Nets win the series against Toronto. Actually beating the Raptors is Brooklyn's ultimate priority—and that won't be easy.

    The Nets are old. They’ve got big-time players, but no freak athletes or young studs, save for Plumlee.

    Brooklyn appears to be in for a long battle against Toronto and the likelihood of sweeping Miami is microscopic—though the Nets did just that in the regular season, beating the Heat all four times they played them.

    ESPN.com indicates that Garnett averaged five points a game on the tail end of back-to-backs, six points following a day of rest and eight points after two days off in the regular season. The more rested KG is, the better he is.

    That goes for the Nets as a whole, too.

    Rest is precious, and while Kidd has done a masterful job of monitoring the playing time of his veterans, there’s no substitute for a day off.

    A well-rested Nets team is dangerous. A sluggish, fatigued team? Not so much.

Opposing Stars

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    In four games against Brooklyn this regular season, LeBron James averaged about 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

    Brooklyn, though nearly ranked as a top-10 defensive team in the regular season, struggles to stop opposing stars.

    Livingston is a quality defender, but by no means can he completely lock up players like James or DeMar DeRozan.

    DeRozan has torched the Nets so far in the first round, putting up nearly 25 points a night despite shooting 36 percent from the field.

    In Game 2, the 24-year-old All-Star abused Brooklyn for 17 fourth-quarter points—more than his entire Game 1 total—on 4-of-5 shooting. DeRozan was clutch, too, sinking jumpers, throwing down dunks and hitting crucial free throws.

    The Nets don’t have one guy they can stick on the other team’s best player. Brooklyn’s defense is all about helping one another.

    After Game 2, ESPNNewYork.con's Ohm Youngmisuk reported that Pierce called the Nets “soft” and pointed out the flaws in their defensive effort:

    I thought guys stuck to their man individually for the most part and didn't help one another, and that is the big part of our defense. Sink and shrinking the floor, locking down the paint ... too many touches for them in the paint, too many paint points, and we didn't rebound.

    Kidd must find a way to keep opposing stars from getting in an NBA Jam-type rhythm. Once a player like DeRozan, or potentially James—whom Brooklyn could see next round—gets going, the Nets have no means of stopping them.

Bonus Factor: The Drake Effect

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Drake, a native of Toronto, announced in September that he’d be joining the Raptors’ front office as the team’s global ambassador.

    Since then, he’s served as prop for Terrence Ross in the Slam Dunk Contest, taken an (awkward) shot at Jay-Z for not attending Game 1 and used a lint roller from his courtside seat in Game 2.

    Most of all, though, Drake has taken great strides in making the Raptors...well...cool again.

    After officially becoming a part of the organization, the hip-hop superstar talked about what he wants to bring to his hometown team:

    In college sports, it’s a religion. It's much like soccer overseas—it becomes something to live by, something to die by, they're so passionate about it. I wanna bring that energy here. You talk about being an unstoppable force, I want other teams to hate coming to play the Raptors.

    Everyone is dying to support Toronto. It’s our time.

    Drake is helping to shape the Raptors’ image into something that fans and players can buy into, and posting a bunch of pro-Raptors/anti-Nets Instagram pictures along the way.

    However, it’s Brooklyn’s job to turn those same cheers into "Marvin’s Room" (NSFW) lyrics.

     

    All stats and information are accurate as of April 27, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.