As the playoffs are nearing, talk has been of the recent slump by the Heat and Pacers and the arrival of Phil Jackson in New York. The 76ers are headed for the longest losing streak in NBA history, while Chicago is winning without Derrick Rose. All that being said, the Brooklyn Nets have been silently climbing out of their 2013 hole and slowly establishing themselves as a potent contender and threat to the Eastern Conference powerhouses.
Tale of two halves
Brooklyn started the season on a sour note. They were 10-21 on December 31, 2013. A slow start was expected because of the new players and the injury to Brook Lopez, but nobody expected them to be 11 games under .500, not at any point in the season. This was a team that experts said would compete with the beasts of the East, but then they just lost one game after another. They looked like a team without an identity and one that had no direction.
Then 2014 came and things started to change.
GM Billy King said in an interview:
“The biggest thing (to the turnaround) I think is with Jason. Now we have a system of how we’re going to play, an identity,”
That identity is small ball. It all started when head coach Jason Kidd began to start Paul Pierce at Power Forward. On March 9, NY Daily News quoted Pierce as saying:
“I think with the way the NBA is going, it’s not the traditional power forward anymore,” Pierce said. “The way the league is going, a lot of the four men are stretch 4s, they play a lot on the perimeter. That’s just the way of the league. I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”
The difference in the following statistics were the result of this version of small ball:
Nov 2013 March 2014
Opponents turnovers per game 13.6 17.5
Three point attempts per game 18.3 24.1
Three point makes per game 6.6 10.1
Steals per game 7.1 11.1
Points per game 95.9 101.5
As a result, the Nets have been 27-11 in 2014 and have climbed their way to the 5th spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Losing Brook Lopez was supposed to hurt because he was averaging 20.6 points per game, but Kidd rode the struggles and is now reaping the fruits of his small ball version. With 13 games left in the regular season, Brooklyn is shaping up and gearing for the playoffs.
As of March 24, 2014, the Eastern Conference standings are as follows:
1 Indiana 51-20
2 Miami 48-20
3 Toronto 39-30
4 Chicago 40-31
5 Brooklyn 37-32
6 Washington 36-34
The Nets have only two remaining opponents with at least a .500 winning percentage: Houston and Miami. They are 21-14 against sub .500 teams. If we are to follow statistics, the Nets have a chance to finish strong and go as high as the No. 3 seed. However, Playoffstatus.com predicts that the Raptors have an 83% probability of winning the Atlantic Division as compared to the Nets’ 17%. Mathematically, it is still possible, especially because the Raptors still have to play Miami, Indiana and Houston.
The Nets are hoping against hope to catch Toronto atop the Atlantic Division. If they end up as the third seed, they will face the Wizards in the first round. And although the Wizards are 3-0 against the Nets this season, they are definitely easier to beat than the Bulls. Also, the Nets like their second round chances if they play the defending champion Heat. They are 3-0 against Miami this season.
If the Raptors hold on to the 3rd spot, the Nets still have a chance of overtaking the Bulls at No. 4 to get homecourt advantage. The Nets would love to get homecourt advantage in the first round because they are 23-11 at home this season. The Bulls still have to go through four playoff teams on their remaining schedule: Portland, Atlanta, Washington and Charlotte.
The Bulls have won the season series with the Nets at 2-1, but on both losses, Brooklyn was in the game up until the second half. In their first game on December 25, the Bulls trailed in the 3rd quarter 49-50 before uncorking a 21-5 blast that led to the 95-78 win. In their second encounter, last February 13, the Nets were only down by three points with 6:29 left in the 4th quarter when the Bulls scored nine unanswered points en route to the 92-76 win. In their most recent encounter with the Bulls, the Nets led all the way and won 96-80. So what does this mean? They’ve lost twice to Chicago, but they were in both games and got hit by big runs late. So the Bulls cannot just take the season series as their gauge against the Nets, who have proved to be a dangerous opponent.
Can the Nets go deep?
The Nets have beaten the Miami Heat in all three meetings so far:
Nov 1 W 101-100
Jan 10 W 104-95 OT
Mar 12 W 96-95
But they have lost to the Pacers in all four of their encounters:
Nov 9 L 91-96
Dec 23 L 86-103
Dec 28 L 91-105
Feb 1 L 96-97
If the Nets are to go deep in the playoffs, they have to go through either of these two teams in the second round: Miami if they get to the 3rd spot, or Indiana if they end up 4th or 5th . Obviously, they like their chances against the Heat because of the season series, but it is worth noting that the Nets lost all four games to the Pacers before they acquired Marcus Thornton.
Marcus Thornton was the 43rd pick of Miami in 2009 out of LSU. He played for the Hawks before moving to the Sacramento Kings. While in Sacramento, he had his best years of his career before sputtering this season to his lowest scoring average in the past four seasons of 8.3 points per game. He was traded to the Nets on February 19.
Thornton isn’t a star, but he’s scoring 12.5 points per game, including two three point makes per game while shooting 40% from three-point land in 22.9 minutes per game. Now that, and the improved play of the other Nets, have given them a record of 13-5 since the trade.
It is also worth noting that the Nets lost twice to the Bulls and twice to the Wizards when Thornton wasn’t around yet, but regardless if it’s been Thornton or not, he’s been an added thorn to the Nets’ opponents thus far.
As of March 24, these are how the top six teams in the East are doing in their last 10 games:
Even though San Antonio is on a 14-game win streak, the Nets are the hottest team in the East right now. The Nets are 10-3 in March after going just 12-7 in February. They also had a blistering January record of 10-3.
Chasing Miami and Indiana is impossible right now. However, they do have a chance of catching the Raptors and Bulls. But even if they end up with the 5th spot in the East, the Nets have momentum going into the playoffs. They seem to be peaking at the right time. Beating this team in the playoffs won’t be easy. They’ve got so much talent and veteran experience. Throw in Paul Pierce, Andre Kirilenko and a healthy KG, along with Joe Johnson and D-Will. Not to mention Shaun Livingston is having career numbers in scoring, assists, rebounds and steals, and is healthy for the first time in a very long time. Then there is the aforementioned Thornton, Andre Blatch, Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson to boot.
The Nets are very dangerous in close games. They are 7-3 in games decided by three points or less this season. This includes two 1-point victories over the Miami Heat. They have the 3rd best home record in the East behind Indiana and Miami. They also have the 3rd most wins over .500+ teams amongst the Eastern playoff bound squads. The Nets are 16-12 against the mighty Western Conference teams, which is also 3rd best in the East.
If we are to analyze these stats, the Nets would appear to be the third best team in the East behind Indiana and Miami, but Brooklyn had a poor 2013, which is the reason why they are currently No. 5 in the playoff race out East. That being said if you’ve got primetime players like Pierce, Garnett, Kirilenko, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, sometimes winning is about being clutch. If we take a look at the scoring averages of the Nets this season, they are an unbelievable -0.8 against their opponents in scoring per game. This means that they have not really been a dominating team, but they stay in the game and give themselves a chance to win it at crunch time. This is a trademark of a very dangerous veteran squad.
If we sum up all the factors that we’ve mentioned, Indiana and Miami should take note because Kidd and company is slowly but surely mixing a recipe for disaster in the East.
Editor’s note: This was a guess post from Justin Becker of FantasyBasketballMoneyLeagues.com. You can follow him on twitter at @NBAFantasyInfo, and you can follow the Fantasy Basketball Money Leagues Google+ Page. For more NBA news visit FantasyBasketballMoneyLeagues.com, a fantasy basketball blog.