Following a 94-82 loss against the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Brooklyn Nets—despite a wealth of postseason experience—are knocking on the door of playoff elimination down 0-2.
The Nets aren’t necessarily dead yet, considering that Miami merely succeeded in holding home court after a long layoff. At this point, however, some fans must be wondering what could have been if All-Star center Brook Lopez had been healthy.
Seeing the words “Lopez” and “healthy” in the same sentence has been a rare occurrence throughout his career. Nevertheless, his interior presence would certainly help in a series against the undersized two-time defending champs.
The Nets’ regular-season turnaround under first-year head coach Jason Kidd was prompted by a shift in philosophy that embraced a small-ball style of play. Shaun Livingston was inserted into the starting five beside Deron Williams in the backcourt. Veteran leader Paul Pierce, meanwhile, was shifted from small forward to power forward for the first time in his illustrious career.
Brooklyn posted a 7-10 record with Lopez healthy and a 37-28 mark without him. It was able to overcome Lopez’s season-ending injury and make the playoffs as a result. With that said, the small-ball strategy is, frankly, something that the Heat just do better.
They’re more athletic, more skilled and younger by comparison. It also helps to have LeBron James, who is shooting a cool 57.6 percent in the series.
The Heat are on a mission to win a third straight title. Facing a fully healthy Nets team may not have disrupted that quest, but it’s clear that Brooklyn is desperately missing its talented big man.
During the regular season, the Nets were able to mask the absence of Lopez through small ball and the emergence of rookie center Mason Plumlee.
In the postseason—specifically against the Heat—neither of those options have been viable. The Duke product has been AWOL after shining with an increased role in March and early April.
As The New York Times’ Harvey Araton wrote, “The offensively challenged and foul-prone Plumlee all but disappeared from Coach Jason Kidd’s rotation, and the Nets’ conspicuous lack of a low-post presence became the takeaway of Game 1 against Miami.”
During the first postseason action of his young career, the 24-year-old has notched more fouls (24) than points (22). Against Miami, that ratio is 7-to-4.
Araton also pointed out that the Heat outscored the Nets, 52-28, in the paint during the first game of the series—not a recipe for success.
One big knock on Lopez is his inability to grab rebounds as a 7-footer. He averaged just six boards per contest in 17 appearances for the Nets this season. While winning the rebounding battle is a way to exploit Miami (it finished dead last in that category this season), being able to thwart drives to the basket is just as important as cleaning the glass.
That is something Lopez could have done effectively. He averaged 1.8 blocks per game before getting hurt yet again and swatted two shots in his only matchup against Miami on Nov. 1 despite playing only 20 minutes.
The skyscraper out of Stanford posted a defensive rating (team points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the court) of 102.7 during the season, per NBA.com. That number isn’t exactly elite, but it’s far better than Brooklyn’s playoff defensive rating of 107.6.
A major culprit for that has been former MVP Kevin Garnett.
KG helped out on the glass in Game 2 by grabbing 12 boards, but his defensive impact has otherwise been minor.
As CBS Sports’ James Herbert wrote, “It hasn’t been fun watching Kevin Garnett in the playoffs. He had a few brief moments of defensive brilliance against the Toronto Raptors in the first round, but by and large he has not been able to affect games in anything resembling the way he has in the past.”
Garnett acknowledged his own woes by saying the following, per Newsday’s Roderick Boone: “I’m not happy with my play right now. I’m trying to get in a flow and a rhythm. Try to bring something. It’s just frustrating. But I’ll grind through it.”
The Nets sorely miss Lopez as an interior force on both offense and defense. His 20.7 points-per-game average is something Brooklyn can’t make up with its other bigs. As a result, Miami is crushing the Nets on the inside.
Because Lopez is sidelined, the Nets' overall depth has been tested. With KG, Plumlee and even Williams struggling significantly, there’s virtually no room for error.
General manager Billy King said the following of the impact Lopez’s absence has had, per Araton:
It’s funny: When Chicago was making that great run, everybody was saying, ‘Oh, man, wait until they get Derrick Rose back.’ The thing that Brook gives is that guy who can score, who demands double teams. He gives us a post presence, and he can play the elbow, do a lot of things, so I think he would really help us in a series like this, or even in the Toronto series.
But nobody seems to talk about how we’re missing Brook. In this case, it’s almost like they’re very dismissive of an All-Star, our leading scorer.
Brooklyn isn’t a team that is going to beat you with one superstar. Some nights Joe Johnson will go off for 30 points or more. Other times Pierce will be the hero with a clutch shot.
Of course, the other side of the coin is represented as well.
For instance, D-Will finished Game 2 with an 0-of-9 shooting performance—notching a grand total of zero points in the process. His plus/minus was a team-worst minus-18.
The Nets need as many options as they can find. The struggles of one or two guys can subsequently be picked up by one or two others so long as they have depth. With Lopez out, KG struggling and Plumlee acting as a non-factor, Brooklyn has little chance of dispatching the mighty Heat.
Lopez may not have been enough for Kidd’s crew to upset Miami, but his presence as a shot-blocker, rim protector and volume scorer would have helped cover the weaknesses that are getting exploited.
As it stands, the Nets’ run is poised to come to an end. They went 4-0 against Miami during the regular season, but as “The Truth” said entering this series, per The Associated Press’ Tim Reynolds, “They’re a different team in the playoffs.”
They certainly are. And right now, the Nets don’t have an answer.