Saturday, December 14, 2013

Are the Brooklyn Nets Back?

Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets
The answer is a resounding yes. And nobody should be surprised.

Look, there's no defending the way the Brooklyn Nets have played for most of this season and especially after the injuries. Injuries happen all the time in this league – the true test is not staying healthy, but adapting when players do go down, because they inevitably will go down. Plain and simple: nobody stood up when Brooklyn lost four of their five starters and several key reserves.

At the same time, it's hard to focus singular blame on any individual. Injuries are expected, but nobody can expect so many players to get hurt all at once. This team was decimated – any squad would lose a lot of games if this happened to them. Earlier this season, I took a look at other teams' rosters and presented what their lineups would look like without their two best players and sixth man, and none of them looked pretty.

But since Deron Williams' return, the Nets have been back on track. They were winners of three straight heading into last night's contest against Detroit, including an impressive 102-93 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers. Jason Kidd has looked in control ever since the "reassignment" of Lawrence Frank and the Nets' defense has looked competent, if not impressive, more often than not.

The loss to the Pistons, while disappointing, is at least understandable. The Nets were without Brook Lopez against a team that is known to kill its opponents in the paint and on the road for a back-to-back game after an overnight flight. I don't want to make excuses, but I think all of those factors are enough to warrant a loss.

And, of course, there was this:

I'll just leave that at that.

If Nets fans are worried about slipping into another losing streak after last night, they shouldn't be. Next week's schedule is light, with two games against the Philadelphia 76ers and one against the Washington Wizards. Brooklyn will play only three games in the next seven days, and their only road game next week is nearby in Philly. This will give the older guys plenty of time to rest up for the match against the Indiana Pacers and, going into that game, Brooklyn could very well be sitting at 11-15, which is more than good enough in the east. Don't forget that the last time these two teams played, it was a very tightly contested game right up until the end.

Brooklyn's focus is still squared solidly on a championship. Management has continued to show that through their exploration of trading for Kyle Lowry. And it just so happens that the Eastern Conference is so utterly pathetic this year that there are only two teams (though they're two very good teams) standing between the Nets and an appearance in the finals.

Much of the time, the Nets have looked sluggish or even apathetic and clueless. Coming into the season, Brooklyn had high expectations and I honestly think that it got to their heads a little bit. From top to bottom in this organization, everyone had their eyes set on the playoffs and they may have forgotten that there was a long, 82-game season to get through. They took the regular season for granted. They started off cocky, got hurt, and fell flat on their faces.

Mercifully, almost all of the rest of the East is just as bad or worse. It's still early. Players are coming back from injuries. Kidd is in control and his rotations have looked a hell of a lot better than Frank's (not giving Tornike Shengelia minutes in the first quarter, for example).

Photo by Matt Stone
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have looked bad this season. Very bad. But the reason they were brought in was not to win games against the Detroit Pistons – they were brought in for their playoff experience, something the rest of the Nets have almost nothing of.

We all know that Garnett and Pierce led the so-called "Big Three" to a championship in 2008, but sometimes people forget how good the two have been in late-season and playoff situations. The Celtics snuck into the playoffs last year and took the 2-seeded Knicks to six games, with Pierce averaging 19 points and Garnett 13.7 rebounds in the series. The year before that, they stunned the basketball world by nearly taking down the Miami Heat in a stunning 7-game series where Garnett averaged 19 points and 9.4 rebounds; Pierce averaged 18 points.

These guys are used to being in the playoffs. They know how to win in the postseason.

In this conference, it's not a matter of if the Nets will make the playoffs – they will. They could even be as high up as the 3-seed. Once they're there, the former Celtics will gain new life and breathe it into the rest of the team – remember how careless the Nets were against the Bulls in last season's playoffs? Do you really think Garnett is going to let that happen without screaming his head off at the rest of the team?

And in the meantime, having the roster back at nearly full health is a tremendous boost, especially with Williams acting like the floor general fans known he can be. Last night, we saw Brooklyn come one bad call away from surmounting a 21-point deficit. We've seen the Nets be down by 20 or worse before, but they've always given up. When a team that has been blown out at a consistent rate suddenly rallies and nearly surges back for a win, it's not difficult to tell that something is different.

The Nets are back. And they're here to win.

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