Trend Watch: Are the Nets actually dangerous?
Some contending teams have gone through lulls, but this is the homestretch where teams try and gear up, establishing their standard of performance heading into the playoffs.
March is a month for college basketball to take the spotlight, but it's also one where the NBA has a lot of movement. And while some contending teams have gone through lulls, this is the homestretch where teams try and gear up, establishing their standard of performance heading into the playoffs.
With just weeks left in the season let's check what's trending in the NBA:
Are the Brooklyn Nets actually dangerous in the postseason?
Since Jan. 1 the Nets are 22-9. They've gone from Eastern Conference embarrassment, to now two games above .500.
The question is: Are they actually a threat in the East now?
Since the start of 2014, the big change the Nets made was going smaller early and often, trying to create mismatches at the 4 with Paul Pierce . Deron Williams came off the bench for a while to try and help facilitate better flow throughout the rotation and aid a weak bench. (He's back to starting now.) Shaun Livingston has blossomed into the player he's always been capable of, routinely providing a secondary and sometimes, primary, scoring load. Joe Johnson carried them in January and players like Mirza Teletovic , Alan Anderson and Andray Blatche have made their contributions.
On the season, the Nets have used two lineups most, and for almost the exact amount of time. Williams, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce and Garnett have played together 122 minutes as Livingston, Johnson, Anderson, Pierce and Garnett have played together 121 minutes. But get this: Those two lineups had played together only a combined 13 minutes before Jan. 1.
Those two lineups? Net per 100 possession ratings of plus-12.9 and plus-7.9.
A quick perusal of NBA.com's lineup data shows that since the start of the new year, the Nets have only played two traditional bigs for a total of 20 minutes. Jason Kidd hasn't just gone to smallball. He's invested his season in it.
This was obviously never the intention behind the Nets, as the plan was set to be around Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett as a tandem, with quality creator and isolation players like Williams and Johnson to help provide scoring. But with Lopez's season-ending injury, Kidd had to readjust. So he just threw his chips all in to the middle with Paul Pierce as his starting power forward.
It's somewhat similar to what Erik Spoelstra and the Heat did during the 2012 postseason, exclusively playing Chris Bosh at center and a combination of LeBron James and Shane Battier at power forward. The Heat have moved a little further away from the positionless mentality lately, but the Nets have picked up that baton and are running with it.
As it stands today, they're set to have the No. 6 seed in the East, which would match them up with the Raptors in the opening round of the playoffs. Coincidentally, the Nets just beat the Raptors on Tuesday, 101-97. If they were to get through Toronto. they'd then get the Heat in the second round. When Garnett and Pierce were sent to Brooklyn in the offseason, the thinking was the Nets were building to beat Miami. And some wondered if they were capable of it. The answer is probably still no, but the series extending to six or seven games wouldn't be all that surprising.
But the Brooklyn resurgance has brought them into not just the playoff conversation, but it's worthwhile wondering how far they could go. They might be missing their best, or at least second best player, but you can't argue with what they've sustained the last two-plus months. Since January, against top level teams like the Thunder, Heat, Warriors, Pacers and Spurs, they're 4-3. So it's not just that they're winning games against poor Eastern teams they should. They're actually playing good basketball.
The problem with the playoffs is you have to beat one of those top tier teams four times out of seven, then turn around and do it again, and again. The Nets could very likely get out of the first round. But topping either the Heat or Pacers seems like a bit too much to ask of them, regardless of their recent surge.
For most of the season, it's been obvious the East is a two team race, and the first two rounds of the playoffs were just filler until the Pacers and Heat met. But with the Nets surging, the Bulls scrapping, the Wizards having some firepower and the Raptors clicking, those first two round may still be filler, but they'll at least be intriguing.
The Western race for eight
Three teams for two spots. The Timberwolves probably have missed their window of opportunity, still five back with 19 games to go. Outside of an extending winning streak, it's over for them.
But for the Suns, Grizzlies and Mavericks, it's going to be a fight to the finish. The seemingly sturdiest team is the Grizzlies, who have stabilized the past couple months after finally getting healthy. They've won seven of 10 and are back to playing their type of successful style.
The Suns are getting Eric Bledsoe back -- probably tonight -- which could be the needed boost to keep them in the playoff hunt. On the back of Goran Dragic , they've survived without Bledsoe, keeping in the race. But they've dropped consecutive games, and now are a game back (but tied with the Mavericks in the loss column).
Dallas may be the team in the most danger. Their performance has slipped as of late, despite a big win over the Pacers on Sunday. They're looking tired and old, as their defense has grown frustratingly inconsistent. If you were a betting person (for entertainment purposes only, obviously), the Mavs might be the most likely to find themselves on the outside looking in. It's hard to ever bet against Dirk and they have an eight-game homestand coming soon. That's going to make or break it for them.
Just like that, the Spurs have won seven straight and are sitting atop the Western Conference again. As Tim Duncan said after their impressive win in Chicago on Tuesday, they've got key parts back and they're playing their kind of basketball again.
For a decent stretch midseason, it looked like the Spurs were showing strong signs of wear and tear, but now that they're back mostly healthy, and just in time for the postseason, they may be the Western favorite again. Same ol' same ol'.
They play the Kings at home tonight. One of their best remaining chances to get a win before this turns into a 36-game losing streak. Godspeed, sweet tankers.
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