In the midst of a four-game winning streak, the New Jersey Nets have obviously been a much better team since the arrival of Deron Williams. Recent wins have given the team confidence and provided some excitement in what had been a rebuilding year.
Even with the wins of late, even the most loyal of Nets fans had to be hoping the team could merely stay competitive with the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics—the team currently tied with Chicago for the best record in the East.
After New Jersey got out to a sluggish start by scoring just 14 points in the first quarter, it appeared the good vibes surrounding the team would quickly fade away.
If there was any doubt left that this is a different team than the one that suffered a 14-point defeat at the hands of these same Celtics in the final game of the pre-Deron Williams era, what happened next should completely erase all of it.
Over the next three quarters New Jersey outscored Boston 74-56, winning all three individual periods and twice holding the C's below 20 points for a quarter, coming out on top by a final score of 88-79.
Simply put, the effort was phenomenal.
Has Boston had some difficulties lately? Yes. Did they overlook the Nets somewhat? Probably. Did New Jersey catch this team at the right time? Of course.
No matter how you cut it there's no taking that W away, however, and this is easily the best stretch of Nets basketball in recent memory. It's hard to even think of a time, this late in the season, when games had any significance whatsoever since the Jason Kidd days.
It would take a near-miraculous run over these final 17 games for the Nets to make the playoffs, but the fact that we can even mention the possibility speaks to the growth of this franchise over the past few weeks.
When looking at the final stats, what New Jersey did against Boston is even more impressive.
Five Nets players scored in double-digits (led by Brook Lopez's 20) and four of them put in at least 15. While New Jersey's 39.7 shooting percentage was, for lack of a better word, awful, the team managed to make the baskets they needed and went 11-of-25 (44.0 percent) on three-pointers.
That accuracy from downtown, along with a 24-8 advantage in free-throw attempts, was the difference in the game.
For the first time in his tenure with the team, Williams failed to reach 10 assists—he "only" got nine—while contributing in other ways as well. On the game, the point guard scored 16 points, grabbed six rebounds, came away with three steals and hit four threes, including the back-breaker with 35 seconds left in the game.
Kris Humphries was once again a beast, scoring 16 points and hauling in 15 boards, and even Travis Outlaw got in on the act with 12 points.
Outlaw's shooting percentage (he was 4-of-11 from the field) still leaves much to be desired, but he did break some droughts throughout the game and is at least trying to get better.
It's tough to be critical after such a big win, but the question does have to be raised as to why Sundiata Gaines did not see any floor time until the third quarter when the Nets were ahead 56-54.
Yes, the team was winning, but not by much, and by the time Gaines—who hit a big three as the buzzer sounded at the end of the third—went back to the bench at 8:26 in the fourth, the Nets were leading 74-64.
That's pretty significant.
Gaines played 14 less minutes than Jordan Farmar, yet he scored more points than him and had just one less rebound. Farmar did have three assists to Gaines' zero, but it's likely the latter could have gotten to that mark with some extra run.
Bottom line: Gaines needs to be playing more and should, at the very least, be splitting minutes with Farmar as the No. 2 point guard. Given Gaines' ability to distribute and Farmar's skill at knocking down the catch-and-shoot three, it wouldn't even be a bad idea to have them on the court together more often.
But this isn't the time to get negative. What's important is that the Nets won and beat an elite, championship-contending team in the process.
They'll have two days off to relish their victory before hosting Chicago, a team they beat at the Prudential Center in January.
If the Nets can come away with another win Thursday and extend their winning streak to six, talks of a playoff push might need to get a little more serious.