By Steve Lichtenstein
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Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
This is the regret not of a mobster, but of a Brooklyn Nets fan.
Just two weeks ago I was done with this team. Brooklyn seemed dead and buried, mired in 11th place and three-and-a-half games out of the eighth slot necessary for a postseason invitation. One website that tracks such things for gamblers listed the Nets’ odds of securing a playoff berth at about five percent.
They were surely lottery-bound with no chance at a lottery pick of their own until 2019, having traded or swapped all their first-round draft picks until then in win-now deals that have so far produced one measly playoff series win in their first two seasons in the borough.
All I wanted out of the Year 3 Nets was a chance to see some more playoff games. But a five-game losing streak earlier this month had me reaching for the plug. I figured the Nets would be playing out the string by now, leaving me time to focus on the upcoming hockey playoffs and who the Jets would draft.
Wait till next year. Or maybe 2016, when they’ll finally get some salary cap relief.
So of course Brooklyn went on to not only rise from the ashes at the onset of spring, but all of a sudden made enough of a charge to turn what should have been a late-March yawner against the Celtics on Monday night into one with fairly big playoff implications.
There’s the pull.
I should have known that prosperity is no friend to the Nets’ family. Brooklyn laid another egg at home, converting a grand total of four shots outside of the paint (including 1-of-17 attempts from three-point range) while falling to Boston, 110-91.
The Nets were barely competitive in the second half against a team with which coach Lionel Hollins said “we don’t match up very well,” but is far from elite. Boston bludgeoned Brooklyn with pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, much to the confusion of Nets centers Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee.
The Nets, meanwhile, were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Only Lopez, who produced 31 points, made more than half his field goal attempts.
It was the kind of performance that should have ended the Nets season once and for all. Except that it didn’t.
First of all–thank you, Eastern Conference.
Without teams like Miami, Charlotte, Indiana and Boston (and watch out for freefalling Milwaukee) all capable of going on extended benders, the 29-40 Nets would be planning summer vacations right now.
Even after such a brutal loss, one that deprived the Nets of owning head-to-head tiebreaker privileges against Boston, the Nets are still only one game back in the loss column from eighth place. The East could very well generate three playoff teams below .500—an embarrassing first for the league and much to the dismay of fans of several teams out West.
“I’m amazed that anybody wants to change the rules (of playoff qualification),” said a smiling Hollins before Monday’s game.
There are other reasons besides the putridity of the Eastern Conference why it may again be premature for me to fold the tent on this team. And then there are issues that suggest the Nets’ playoff dreams are doomed to figuratively end in a similar manner to Michael Corleone’s brother Sonny.
So in the spirit of another 1970s iconic entertainment vehicle–Saturday Night Live’s “Point, Counterpoint” let’s decide which way to lean:
Point: The Nets’ Schedule
Ten of the Nets’ 13 remaining games will be played in New York City (including April 1 at Madison Square Garden against the tanking Knicks). That’s supposed to be favorable.
Counterpoint: The Nets’ Schedule
The Celtics loss was the Nets’ 20th in 32 games at Barclays Center this season. Brooklyn is the only NBA team which sports a better road record than home record. No one knows why. (Well, Hollins said “I have my own theories, but I’m not sharing them.”)
Also, seven of those final 13 games are against teams over .500. The Nets are 8-28 versus such opponents. I don’t like where the extrapolation leads.
Point: Thaddeus Young
Since the trade deadline, the Nets top the league in points in the paint. Not coincidentally, that was when Brooklyn swapped Kevin Garnett for Young, whose athleticism and skills around the basket (plus he’s been hitting three-pointers at a rate well above his career norm, though don’t be shocked if it soon regresses to his mean) has easily trumped Garnett’s leadership and mid-range jump shots.
Though pretty much invisible after the first quarter on Monday night, Young has been giving the Nets an added dimension to their offense, something that was sorely needed considering how often they have struggled from the perimeter.
Counterpoint: Hollins’ Irrational Love Affair with Small-Ball
I’ve been ranting about this since the All Star break, but when Hollins puts forth a four-guard lineup surrounding his center–using Joe Johnson as the nominal power forward–it negates all the points-in the-paint advantages from the prior paragraph. It worked during the fourth quarter in Indiana on Saturday—because the Pacers’ strategy to have David West cover Alan Anderson backfired. Anderson proceeded to create havoc with drives past the slower West on key fourth-quarter possessions.
More often it’s a disaster for Brooklyn. After a solid first quarter in Cleveland last week, Hollins had the Nets go small during Young’s breather to match the Cavs. Many uncontested three-pointers and dunks later, it was blowout city.
A common side effect is that Hollins usually sticks us with the dreaded Deron Williams-Jarrett Jack dual point guard pairing in these formations. Counting the eight minutes in the fourth quarter on Monday during which the Nets were outscored, 17-11, the duo is minus-118 in the 593 minutes they have played together this season.
Point: The Emergence of Bojan Bogdanovich
OK, Monday was a setback. Bogdanovich had been averaging over 12 points per game on 56 percent shooting (47 percent on threes) coming off the bench this month prior to his 3-for-14 stinker against the Celtics. Per Hollins, the Euro-stash rookie’s improved play has been the major reason why he has played
Williams and Jack together far less than he did prior to the All Star break. (It couldn’t have been because the analytics told him it was a bad idea, right?)
I also like how Bogdanovich makes intelligent basketball plays with off-the-ball movement—be it a cut to the basket in a half-court set or a leak-out to produce easy transition points. His athleticism deficit is a concern, particularly how easy it is for opponents to strip him of the ball and how much space he gives to those (i.e. all NBA players) who can knock down shots.
Still, the Nets are better now that he’s an offensive factor, especially during those stretches when Hollins plays five reserves at once (another one of my pet peeves).
Counterpoint: The Disappearance of Deron Williams
At least D-Will played meaningful minutes in the fourth quarter on Monday, logging over 30 minutes total for the first time in seven games. Hollins had been going with the Jekyll-and-Hyde Jack down the stretch.
It’s hard to argue the benchings haven’t been deserved. Williams’ shooting numbers have plummeted in March, in contrast to the last two seasons when ankle treatments rejuvenated his game after both All Star breaks.
Yet for all of Jack’s late-game heroics this season, he’s not leading the Nets to the playoffs. Not when his top priority is finding space to launch ill-advised mid-range jumpers.
Point: Brook Lopez’s Offensive Rebounding
Since the All Star break, Lopez has been averaging 4.4 offensive rebounds per game, fourth best in the League in that span. He’s been playing closer to the rim, resulting in more catch-and-shoot opportunities inside the foul line as opposed to popping out for inefficient 20-footers. That has allowed him to be more aggressive on the offensive glass, where he has been using his seven-foot frame to his advantage.
Counterpoint: Brook Lopez’s Defensive Rebounding
Since the All-Star break, Lopez has been averaging 4.5 defensive rebounds per game. He is still 54th out of 60 qualifying centers in defensive rebounding percentage this season. Not only does he rarely show the aggression to get after rebounds outside his reach, Lopez loses several opportunities for boards each game by going up with only one hand. In their thrilling triple-overtime win against Milwaukee on Friday, the Nets conceded 38 offensive rebounds, one short of the NBA record set in 1973.
After a careful review of all points–I’m out.
How is this team making the playoffs? They have no home-court advantage, they don’t defend, they’re miserable from three-point territory, and they routinely get out-hustled when the games come down to who wants it more.
The Nets play nine games in the first 15 days of April. Maybe two or three are winnable, not counting those games where their opponent gives their regulars time off to heal for the postseason.
Better for me to make a clean break now than to fall for another tease.
But they do have a big game in Charlotte on Wednesday. A Nets win would….
OK, maybe I’ll give them one more game.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.