By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
The NCAA basketball tournaments may be in the books, but mark my words: on Wednesday night, the Nets will be cut.
I’m talking about the Brooklyn Nets, whose horrid “performance” in a 96-73 loss in Milwaukee on Sunday will likely have them excised from the 2015 NBA playoffs.
I know how the Eastern Conference standings read this morning—the Nets are technically still in the eighth and final postseason slot by virtue of the tiebreaker they own over the Pacers. Win their final two games, and the Nets are in.
But how can anyone expect that to happen given how poorly this group performs under pressure? Any time these Nets get even a whiff of prosperity, they blow it back out the door.
One more loss and the veteran Pacers, with star guard Paul George back in tow, will be the ones with destiny in their hands. They just survived a Russell Westbrook nightmare to defeat the Thunder on Sunday, 116-104. They aren’t losing again.
I wish I could say the same for the Nets. Both of their games will be at home, but their record in Brooklyn this season is 18-21 (though they’ve won six of their last seven). They’re the only team in the league with a better road record than home record.
The Bulls are visiting the Barclays Center on Monday night with third place on the line and a coach (Tom Thibodeau) who doesn’t know how to hold anything back. The Magic invade Brooklyn on Wednesday in a game where the Nets should be favored, except that the Magic have been quite frisky lately. These contests won’t be gimmes.
Indiana meanwhile, hosts the pretty much locked-in Wizards on Tuesday before traveling to banged-up Memphis on Wednesday in the season finale. Don’t be shocked if those opponents don’t show up with a full squad.
We can moan all we want about this end-of-season pot-luck routine, like how Cleveland just gifted seventh-place Boston two wins by playing the fourth quarter on Friday and the entire game on Sunday with a lineup that would have trouble scoring in a men’s over-40 league.
That’s if we’re willing to forget all the breaks the Nets have received this season with stars missing games due to injury or rest. Just this past week, the Nets were fortunate that All Stars LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland), Paul Millsap (Atlanta), and John Wall (Washington) were all inactive for their games in Brooklyn.
When you look deeper at the Nets’ 12-5 run that falsely elevated fans’ hopes for this season, you’ll notice that only four of those wins were earned against teams over .500. Three of those four clubs were missing an All-Star at the time.
Ignore for the moment that none of the pretenders in the middle of this race in the (L)east ‘deserves” a playoff berth—those are the rules, so get over it. Making the postseason happens to be an imperative for the Nets, considering that their 2015 first-round draft pick will belong to Atlanta (in a pick swap arising from the 2012 trade that sent Joe Johnson to Brooklyn).
Yet they might as well have been playing with trowels on Sunday, with all the bricks they threw up at the Bradley Center backboards. The Nets shot an inept 32.5 percent from the floor (including 16.7 percent from three-point range) and turned the ball over 21 times.
Many of the misses were uncontested. The Bucks prioritized defending the paint in a second half where the Nets were only able to muster 32 points. The Nets must have left their shooting strokes on the team plane.
They better locate them on Monday, because you can expect more of the same strategy from Chicago. Though not as long and athletic in the backcourt as Milwaukee, the Bulls will also feature a strong-side overload and pressure the Nets’ Max Three of Johnson, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams any time they run two-man pick-and-roll or isolation plays. That means the Nets will try again to rely on their shaky three-point shooting to free up space inside.
Unfortunately, the Nets’ 33.3 percent conversion rate is tied for the fifth-worst in the league this season, which lowers the odds of success quite a bit. Even during this 17-game stretch—with Williams and shooting guard Bojan Bogdanovich going off from deep on multiple occasions—the Nets have only knocked down 34.7 percent of their three-pointers, which is still below the league average.
Defensively, the numbers are worse. Per NBA.com, the Nets have surrendered 105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions over their last 17 games—21st out of 30 teams in that time frame. They’re also the fourth-worst in opponent’s three-point field goal percentage (38.4 percent) and tenth from the bottom in defensive rebounding percentage (73.6 percent).
And this was all happening during a period when the Nets were winning!
NBA.com writer John Schumann reported that the Nets are minus-222 in terms of season-long point differential. In contrast, the Pacers are plus-31. If the Nets do indeed hold onto the final postseason slot, their minus-2.8 average point differential would be the worst of any NBA playoff team since the 1995-96 Sacramento Kings.
Yes, the Nets are a bad basketball team. A first-round matchup with the Hawks would most likely be very one-sided.
Yet it would be more rewarding than the alternative—watching Hawks legend Dominique Wilkens on the stage on Lottery Night (May 19) gloating after miraculously winning a top-three pick that could have belonged to Brooklyn.
The Nets have had many opportunities to make their own luck in their three years in the borough. Through mismanagement and a general team-wide malaise, they’ve never been able to take advantage of them save for one playoff series victory. The only thing consistent about this team has been their inconsistency.
Here’s one thing you can count on, though: On Wednesday, the Nets will be counted out.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.