By Steve Lichtenstein
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It was only two weeks ago when NBA followers, though piqued by the Brooklyn Nets’ roster overhaul, cast appropriate doubt about just how far this chemistry experiment could go. Sure they could toy with the bottom-feeding teams like Orlando but how would they measure up when facing the League’s elite?

Well, after nine games in 14 days, which included three sets of three-games-in-four nights, you can put me in the camp of those who believe that the Nets are an Eastern Conference title contender right now.

Forget the Nets’ second-half meltdown in last night’s 102-89 loss at Miami. I might want the N-E-T-S to stand for a No Excuses Team, but that would have been an incredibly difficult game to win anyway. They had no rest on a back-to-back, no starting center Brook Lopez due to a foot injury and no chance they were going to get any breaks from an officiating crew in awe of the defending champions.

Still, they went to-to-toe with the Heat for about two-and-a-half quarters before their legs ran out of gas. The Nets put up 59 points in the first half with a remarkable display of offensive efficiency. Spreading the floor and moving the ball like the 70s Knicks, the Nets made the Heat account for everyone, even power forward Kris Humphries, who contributed nine first-half points.

Unfortunately, the shots stopped falling and the momentum-changing turnovers mounted. They had nothing left after an awful Joe Johnson pass led to a bogus Keith Bogans foul call on the ensuing Norris Cole foray on the Miami fast break with about nine minutes left. Coach Avery Johnson picked up his first technical foul of the season arguing the call and Miami pulled away from there.

There may be no such thing as moral victories or carryovers, but you can put this recent swath of games into context. It’s no disgrace to lose to the Heat or Lakers on the road or at Golden State when they’re shooting the lights out when you can also look to the Nets’ triumphs over quality teams in their 6-3 run. They executed late to pull out home wins over the Clippers and Knicks and manhandled the Celtics in Boston.

This is a team that is improving each week. We are starting to see the fruits from the defensive seeds that Johnson planted in training camp. And the offense can still reach another gear if the starting backcourt of Johnson and Deron Williams can rediscover their formula for consistent outside shooting.

That’s not to say that I’m 100% sure this train can’t be derailed. While the Nets can survive a few games without Lopez, Williams is the one irreplaceable Net. He’s already battling through a myriad of health issues, including bone spurs in his left ankle that may require surgery after the season and a sprained right wrist that is definitely contributing to his shooting woes. He’s so valuable at controlling the tempo and finding his teammates in scoring position that I’m hoping he can just survive the grind. The Nets may have vastly improved resources on their bench, but no one, not even C.J. Watson, who filled in admirably for Chicago’s Derrick Rose in the playoffs last season, can replicate what Williams brings to the table.

There are other issues I have with Johnson when he turns to his bench. I believe he is getting suckered when his opponents go small up front, too often opting to forgo the Nets’ advantages in rebounding merely to match the sizes. It’s one thing to avoid having someone like Humphries or Reggie Evans chase Ray Allen all over the floor, but quite another when it’s Ronnie Brewer.

The Nets feed off the hustle and energy of the Humphries/Evans duo, but also need the inside scoring of Lopez or Andray Blatche. When Johnson has to choose, the Nets often lose.

To compound matters, Johnson turns to Bogans in key spots, though I have yet to figure out why. Bogans may be more defensively diligent than MarShon Brooks and spryer than ageless wonder Jerry Stackhouse, but he’s certainly no stopper when it comes to guarding the likes of Dwyayne Wade, Paul Pierce or Carmelo Anthony. Plus he’s an offensive dead end. The Nets are past the point where they need filler on the floor.

These are merely minor creases on the restoration project that Johnson and general manager Billy King engineered on a franchise that was left for dead in New Jersey only six months ago. King supplied Johnson with a multitude of new options and Johnson in turn accelerated the learning curve.

There’s been a lot of talk about the move to Brooklyn and how the team is taking on the city’s mojo. It’s a nice story, and one that I’ll delve into in the coming weeks, but it’s really anecdotal.

It masks the reality that, in a two-week span, the Nets have developed into a team that matters in the Eastern Conference. While the star-packed Heat deserve to be heavily-favored to repeat, they needed to play their best game of the season (according to their coach Erik Spoelstra) to get past a road-weary Nets’ squad that dearly missed the 18.5 ppg that Lopez had been supplying.

This week will feature more tests when two first-place teams in their respective divisions venture into the Barclays Center—the 14-4 Thunder visit on Tuesday and then comes a rematch versus the surprising Warriors on Friday. Lopez’ return is not certain.

The catch now is that these teams will no longer be caught off guard. These are no longer the new-look Nets. This is a team quite capable of matching up with the best the NBA has to offer.

Do you think the Nets are contenders for the Eastern Conference title? Let us know in the comments section below.

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