After a horror start to the season, the NBA’s most expensive team has charged home to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference. Can the improved Nets continue to push towards the Finals?
The Story So Far
After splurging on the most expensive roster in NBA history during the offseason, the Brooklyn Nets struggled to a 3-10 start to the season. But after re-assigning assistant coach Lawrence Frank to a front office role, and getting a healthy roster together, Brooklyn slowly climbed the standings.
It took them until their 58th game of the season (on Mar. 3) to reach a .500 record, but they have strung together four streaks of at least three consecutive wins since then and now hold the fifth seed in the East with a 44-36 record.
The Nets late-season resurgence is even more impressive when you consider they lost centre Brook Lopez (20.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) for the season in late December, with a 9-18 record.
Once Lopez was ruled out, the Nets stars stepped up and willed them back into the playoff race.
Star point guard Deron Williams (14.4 points and 6.2 assists per game) struggled with injuries early in the season, and while his production is down considering his lofty standards, his return to the lineup has helped steady the ship in BK.
Joe Johnson was a shock All-Star selection earlier in the season (averaging 15.0 points on 43.8% FG and 39.0% 3FG per game before the break), but lifted his output to 17.1 points (48.2% FG and 41.8% 3FG) per game post All-Star.
Likewise, Paul Pierce rediscovered his shooting touch after the All-Star break, improving his percentages from 42.9% from the floor and 36.0% from deep before All-Star weekend to 48.8% and 39.0% respectively post-break.
Meanwhile, Shaun Livingston (9.4 points and 3.6 assists post-All-Star) and Mason Plumlee (8.9 points and 5.9 rebounds) also increased their production after All-Star Weekend.
It is no coincidence that the Nets, who enter the All-Star break with a 24-27 record, have gone 20-9 since.
Before the All-Star break, Brooklyn was scoring just 97.2 points per night (on 45.0% field goal and 36.6% three-point shooting) while giving up 99.5. Since then, they’re outscoring their opponents 101.3 to 98.7, and have improved their shooting percentages to 47.7% FG and 37.3% 3FG. They’ve also turned a -0.4 assist differential to a +0.5 one.
Much of this can be attributed to the improved play of their stars. But, the addition of Marcus Thornton (11.5 points on 41.8% FG and 38.3% 3FG since joining Brooklyn) at the trade deadline also gave the Nets the scorer that Jason Terry (4.5 points on 36.2% FG and 37.9% 3FG) was supposed to be off the bench.
Meanwhile, the contributions of Andray Blatche (11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game), Andrei Kirilenko (5.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists) and Mirza Teletovic (8.6 points and 39.0% 3FG) should also not be overlooked.
Postseason Performer to Watch
When Brooklyn traded for Pierce, Terry and Kevin Garnett on draft night, many fans were excited by the prospect of Garnett being able to protect the rim alongside the defensively-challenged Lopez.
Unfortunately, Garnett has struggled with injury throughout the season, averaging career-lows in minutes (20.6), points (6.6), blocks (0.8), steals (0.8), assists (1.5), field goal percentage (44.6%) and field goals made (3.0) and attempted (6.6) per game. Meanwhile, he is also grabbing the fewest rebounds per contest since his rookie season (6.7).
However, it is not that surprising to see Garnett’s input decrease given his age – he will turn 38 on May 19.
The hope for Brooklyn is that Garnett will be able to increase his production in the playoffs. He has been nursed through the regular season, and the Nets will need to hope he has fresh legs for a playoff push.
Don’t expect him to return to the form from his Boston Championship days, but just getting 25-30 minutes of solid defence out of Garnett could swing the result of a few games.
Brooklyn cannot rely on Plumlee and Blatche to protect the basket for the entirety of the postseason.
Garnett must step up.
Early in the season there was talk that Brooklyn might even miss the playoffs, but look at them now.
Their offence has improved out-of-sight since the All-Star break and their stars have been fit and firing in the closing stages of the season.
That improved offence will be put to the test against the Chicago Bulls in round one. Brooklyn went 1-2 against the Bulls during the regular season and Chicago was able to hold them to just 83.3 points per game.
Finally, if they do make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, Brooklyn would face the Miami Heat, a team that they swept 4-0 during the regular season. However, they only won those games by a combined 12 points.
Brooklyn are one of the biggest wildcards heading into the playoffs. Anything from a first-round flame out to a surprise Finals appearance is not outside of the realm of possibilities.
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