Road Trip Will Test Nets’ Fortitude


The halfway point of the 2014-15 season is upon us and the Nets currently sit seven games under .500. Last year, Brooklyn was in a similar situation except they happened to be trending upwards at this point of the season.  Losers of eight of their last ten games, the Nets continue to cling to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with several teams (Detroit, Charlotte, Boston) nipping at their heels. After falling flat on their faces in their most recent home stand, Brooklyn begins a brutal stretch of games for the next month and a half.

Throughout the first 41 games, the Nets had one of the most favorable (if not the easiest) schedules in the entire league and are 16 games out of the first seed in the East. Granted, the Atlanta Hawks are on fire and might just have solidified their title chances in the past two months but the Nets chances of a first round bye have already fallen by the wayside. Even Toronto, the clear cut Atlantic Division leaders are struggling of late (3-7 last ten games) and still hold a 9.5 game lead over Brooklyn.

Sorry to burst your bubble Nets fans, they aren’t winning a division title in this calendar year. They had their opportunities in the first half of the season and simply have not taken advantage of the opportunities presented. Many basketball pundits predicted in the summer that Brooklyn would struggle to gain entry into the playoffs and they are currently spot on with their projections.

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Similar to myself, the Brooklyn faithful have become accustom to their team in the playoffs after two short seasons in the borough, especially with the bevy of high-priced players that have suited up for the Nets. Although expectations for the club were low to begin with, an absence from the postseason would be a major failure for Brooklyn. Rumors have swirled regarding Mikhail Prohkorov’s intent on putting the team onto the market after only five years of ownership and Stephen Cohen has emerged as a potential suitor.

In addition to the franchise being pushed onto the market, reports continue to present themselves regarding the status of the trade prospects for Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Lopez was nearly dealt last weekend but GM Billy King nixed the negotiations with offers on the table from the Hornets and the Thunder. Lopez responded to the nagging trade rumors with impressive performances in back-to-back games against Washington, including a 26-point outburst in a 102-80 victory in the nation’s capital on Friday.

Understandably, it will be difficult for Lionel Hollins and his squad to remain focused with all the rumors and reports surrounding the team but there are still games to be played. To clarify, VERY important games.  In order to stay afloat in the logjam that is the 7 through 11 seeds in the East, Brooklyn will need to play .500 basketball or better for the rest of the year to play into the Spring. Most likely, there will be a team or two that falls below .500 that sneaks into the playoffs from the East and Brooklyn falls right in line with that level of mediocrity.

Let the battle for the 8th playoff spot begin!

Anyways, onto this weeks slate of games.

Second half, second life for the Nets season…or so we’d hope. A west coast road trip is not an ideal start, especially with back-to-back games on Wednesday/Thursday against the Kings and Clippers. To close the week, Brooklyn hits the Great Salt Lake to take on a young and upstart Jazz squad that continues to give teams fits on the offensive and defensive ends all season due to their size and athleticism.

Best case scenario of this trip would be 3-0 but chances of that happening is highly unlikely. In five games this season, Brooklyn is 1-4 when playing a western conference team on the road. So let’s go with 2-1 to be somewhat realistic, shall we? In late December, the Nets beat the Kings in one of their most impressive performances of the season, 107-99. This was back when it looked like the Nets were gaining serious momentum into the new year (it was short-lived). The key to that particular victory was ball security.

Sacramento committed 21 turnovers to the Nets nine as Brooklyn played fantastic defense by disrupting passing lanes and taking advantage in transition. The Nets’ ability to build an early lead was on full display as the Kings played catch up for a majority of the game as every comeback attempt was thwarted by Brooklyn. Closing out a team in the fourth quarter has been a rarity this year and will need to become constant if the Nets are going to make a playoff push.

Anytime you come to Sacramento, you’ll have to do the impossible to come out victorious. In addition to the passionate fanbase, the Kings homecourt is where DeMarcus Cousins patrols the paint. Cousins, the 5th year pro from Kentucky has took the league by storm this season, elevating his game to new heights along with his fellow alumnus, Anthony Davis. Although Davis grabbed the headlines early in the season, Cousins has consistently punished low post defenders each night and is the only player in the NBA in the top five in points and rebounds per game (23.9 & 12.6).

In their last meeting, Cousins posted 24 points and 13 boards on 75% shooting but was counterbalanced by the strong performance of Mason Plumlee (22 points). Mason was able to get to the foul line an astounding 16 times and put Cousins into foul trouble, one of the main flaws in his game. Plumlee and Lopez must attack the rim with authority once again to negate the defensive presence that Cousins represents in the paint.

“I have a pretty good sense of how we are and who we are…We just keep battling. I’m not gonna tell you exactly who we are, but I do know, and I understand perfectly.” – Lionel Hollins

All three teams this week are extremely athletic, with the ability to score points in bunches, particularly Los Angeles. The Clippers received a shot of life with their new ownership but have struggled with consistency in the early portion of 2014-15. Their reputation for up-tempo, high scoring basketball has not withered and remain one of the most potent teams in the league. Brooklyn will certainly have their hands full with the likes of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Due to the injury of Deron Williams, the Nets backcourt remains extremely thin as Darius Morris has now been summoned to the role of backup point guard behind Jarrett Jack. The combination will have to deal with Chris Paul and volume-scorer Jamal Crawford for the entire 48 minutes.

Finally, the Utah Jazz welcomes Brooklyn on Saturday to conclude the week long road trip. Utah’s record is not a direct reflection of their overall play this season. Sitting at 14-27 (13th in West), Utah is one of the best rebounding teams in the league (3rd in rebounding rate), bruising opponents on the boards with their trio of big men. The three headed monster of Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors have helped the Jazz slow down opponents in their half court set with the 2nd slowest pace in NBA behind Miami. Utah’s activity on the glass allows extra possessions on offense, something the Nets must limit on Saturday night. Brooklyn has struggled against strong rebounding teams, most recently Washington, as Nene and Marcin Gortat ravaged their front court last Saturday.

In their attempt to keep pace in the inferior Eastern Conference, Brooklyn must remain focused in the second half in order to make a legitimate playoff run. A road trip that ends in a 2-1 record could raise the spirits of a team that has heavily struggled in the past two weeks. After dismantling the Wizards on their home court Friday, the Nets hung with Washington for the entire game. Although they couldn’t complete the weekend sweep, Brooklyn should take solace in the fact that they finally played to their competition, as the Wizards are a legitimate threat in the East and could be a potential playoff opponent depending on how the second half shakes up.

40 wins could very well earn a trip to the playoffs for a mid-level Eastern conference squad and the Nets would need to finish 23-18 for the remainder of the season to achieve a third-straight playoff appearance. Amidst the adversity, trade rumors, possible sale of the team and nagging injuries, it would certainly be a major accomplishment to still be playing meaningful basketball in late April.

The quest for the postseason begins Wednesday night in Sacramento. A win against the Kings helps the Nets keep pace with the Heat and builds their confidence for their tough schedule that lies ahead. If they’re able to play .500 basketball up until the All-Star break, Brooklyn will most likely be able to maintain their position in their East for the stretch run.

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Go Nets.