The New Jersey Nets had a number of big-time player performances in Week 20, and on a team-wide basis the biggest story is the four-game winning streak the group is currently on.
The run is the longest since the 2008-09 season and clearly indicates that things are going in the right direction. Even more impressive is that two of those wins came without the services of Deron Williams, who was with his wife for the birth of their fourth child.
Both games last week had their heroes, and there are also some constants in terms of individual production that give serious reason for optimism through the end of this season and into next year.
Before going any further, here's a quick recap of the week:
The Nets went 2-0 on the week, are 21-43 overall, sit at fourth place in the Atlantic Division and remain 12th overall in the Eastern Conference.
As of right now, New Jersey is six games out of the final playoff spot. It's not at all probable that they could put on a run and make the postseason, but the possibility is still out there. If the team can continue to play well, this will at least give some meaning to these final 18 games.
While two games is a very limited sample, the Nets had advantages over their opponents in nearly every major statistical category last week. They scored more, had a higher shooting percentage and were more effective on the boards.
Here are the stats to prove it:
|Week 20 Stats ||Nets||Opponents|
|FTA/Game (%)||16.0 (68.8)||17.5 (62.9)|
|Rebounds (Offensive)/Game||46.5 (12.0)||43.0 (9.5)|
Scoring 98.0 PPG and hitting 45.7 percent of your shots isn't amazingly spectacular, although both numbers are above New Jersey's season averages. The 23.0 APG are also above the Nets' yearlong average, and that stat is particularly important considering the absence of Williams.
If the rest of the team can play this well without their all-world point guard, imagine what they'll be able to do with him, especially now that everyone has grown accustomed to one another.
The rebounding numbers are good as well, and that is largely due to the play of Kris Humphries and the improvement of Brook Lopez. We'll get into their weeks shortly.
Two areas where the Nets still need to improve are free-throw attempts and turnovers. Granted, playing only two games can throw some stats off (New Jersey was good with its turnovers against Golden State and bad against L.A.), but not giving the ball away remains something the team needs to work on.
New Jersey's ability to get to the line should improve once Williams gets back.
As for individual performances, I already mentioned Lopez and Humphries, so let's discuss them first.
Kris Humphries was an absolute monster last week. He scored 15.0 PPG, grabbed 17.5 RPG and hit 86.6 percent of his shots (you read that right). How much this guy has improved in just one offseason is nothing short of extraordinary, and one has to think he's earned himself a contract for next season.
If the Nets do bring Humphries back, the benefit is not just in his play. Re-signing the six-year pro would also mean the team has three of its five starting positions locked down for the foreseeable future (assuming Williams agrees to an extension).
This would make scouting, drafting, trading and signing other free agents much easier because there would be less to focus on and the other needs could receive more attention.
Lopez has also been on a tear lately, and he's quietly improved his rebounding to where it's no longer a league-wide joke.
The center battled mono over the summer, limiting his ability to work out. He was actually supposed to be a part of Team USA, but was unable to participate as a result of his illness.
It appears Brook has gotten his strength back, and the impact is evident.
Last week alone he scored 25 PPG, hit 52.6 percent of his shots (he took nearly 20 a game), brought in 8.5 RPG and got to the free-throw line 6.5 times a game. There's been some talk of possibly attempting to swap Lopez for Dwight Howard, but if the former can keep playing like this, that doesn't seem necessary.
As enticing as getting a superstar like Howard is, people seem to forget that Lopez is just 22 and in his third year. He's gotten better with his defensive positioning as the year has gone along, and is also blocking shots much more effectively, as evidenced by his 2.7 BPG over the last 10 contests.
Of course, if Orlando comes calling with the right package, it would be incredibly hard to turn it down. But that's just it. Any deal would have to be for the right price.
No one can predict what will become of Lopez in three years, but it might be worth the wait to find out.
Other notables from last week include Sundiata Gaines and Jordan Farmar.
Both had their moments filling in for Williams, and both had their imprints on the two wins.
Gaines came up huge against Golden State, providing energy, defense and offensive execution off the bench while also taking up crunch-time minutes.
Farmar, on the other hand, shook off a subpar performance against the Warriors to be a major factor against the Clippers. The former Laker scored 11 straight points down the stretch against L.A.'s other team, drilling a number of big three-pointers in the process.
Depending on how the rest of this year shakes out and if Gaines—who is currently playing out his second 10-day contract—is retained for the month, there could be a decision to make this summer.
If Gaines stays on board and keeps playing like he has been, it's possible the Nets would look to move Farmar and have Gaines take over as the backup point guard.
Farmar certainly has a better shooting touch than Gaines, but Gaines does appear to be a better distributor, who doesn't force bad shots and is a superior defensive player.
Being that Avery Johnson wants the foundation of this team to be defense, and that he surely has a soft spot in his heart for guys like Gaines, who are fighting with all they've got to make it in this league, it's a real possibility that the Queens native will be playing close to home in Brooklyn come 2012.
Competition like this is never a bad thing, and it should cause all involved to put forth maximum effort.
Whether or not the Nets have a realistic shot at making the playoffs will be determined in the coming weeks, and we could know for sure as soon as next week is through.
New Jersey has four games next week and will begin a stretch of eight games in 13 days.
A 2-2 week would be a successful one, and going 3-1 would be phenomenal.