Brooklyn Nets: Solid December sets stage for rest of season

Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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The Brooklyn Nets needed a strong December, which was home-heavy, and finished the month 9-6, with more wins than they had in October and November combined.

The Brooklyn Nets opened December with three straight losses and closed it with two tough defeats on the road. But what the club accomplished in between was exactly what it needed to do during a month heavy in home dates and their hopes for playoff contention teetering on the brink.

The Nets entered December with an 8-15 record after a 5-10 November that included a major injury to emerging star Caris LeVert and five straight losses to finish the month.

I wrote in August, after the NBA released the 2018-19 schedule, that December would hold the key to the Nets’ playoff hopes and Brooklyn delivered with a 9-6 mark that included six wins in their nine home games and a 3-3 split on the road.

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Two of those three losses at home were the final two games in their eight-game losing streak, brutally tough losses at home to the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 3 and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 5 that were the epitome of blown opportunities.

Against Memphis, the Nets couldn’t hold a seven-point lead in the final 33 seconds of regulation before losing in double-overtime. The Thunder overcame a 23-point deficit to win on Paul George‘s late 3-pointer.

From there, Brooklyn ran off seven straight wins — matching the club’s best streak since moving from New Jersey in 2012 — and won nine of 10 games overall, with the lone loss coming at home to the Indiana Pacers.

Indiana’s a playoff team that has had the Nets’ number for awhile, currently holding nine straight wins over Brooklyn dating back to the Nets’ last win against them in October 2016.

It might be easy to be disappointed with how the month ended — road losses to the Charlotte Hornets and Milwaukee Bucks — but those are two teams that are very good at home and the Milwaukee game came on the back end of a brutal back-to-back that just did meet the NBA’s guidelines for the minimum allowable gap between start times on consecutive days.

Brooklyn won nine games in 15 games in December after winning eight in 23 tries in October and November combined. After the loss to Oklahoma City, the Nets were 8-18, in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, and four games out of eighth.

After the Orlando Magic stunned the Detroit Pistons with an Evan Fournier buzzer-beater Sunday, the Nets are 10th in the East at 17-21, one game behind the eighth-place Pistons and just 1½ in back of the Hornets and Miami Heat, who are tied for sixth.

With the Washington Wizards losing John Wall to season-ending heel surgery, it’s looking like a five-team scramble for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference with Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Orlando and the Nets set to jockey over the final 3½ months.

Spencer Dinwiddie, even with two poor performances to close out the month, seriously had a December to remember. He averaged 20 points and six assists per game and signed a three-year contract extension. That’s a pretty good month, no?

D’Angelo Russell averaged 17.9 points and 6.8 assists per game as his facilitating continues to improve. He also shot 44 percent despite some wild ups-and-downs over the 14 games he played.

The 3.4 turnovers per game in 14 games — he rested at Milwaukee — is a concern, but overall it was a solid showing.

Joe Harris bounced back from a cooler November to have a red-hot December, averaging 14.4 points per game and shooting a ridiculous 56.5 percent from 3-point range in 13 games (he missed the first two games of the month with left adductor tightness).

The breakout performance of December had to be rookie Rodions Kurucs, though. He rose from out-of-the-rotation reserve playing on assignment in the NBA G League to starting the final nine games of the month after Allen Crabbe went down with a sore right knee.

The kid performed well in 14 games, averaging 9.7 points and 4.3 boards in 22.9 minutes a game and made big plays with his offensive instincts and with his length and quickness at the defensive end.

January will feature 15 games — eight at Barclays Center and seven on the road — and has just two back-to-backs. The Nets will play at the Chicago Bulls and at the Boston Celtics on Sunday and Jan. 7 and then have the same two teams on Jan. 28-29, at Boston and home for the Bulls.

The month also features a three-game road trip (Memphis, Boston, Chicago) in four days from Friday-Jan. 7 as well as games at the Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, Orlando and the San Antonio Spurs.

The Nets resume play on Wednesday by hosting the New Orleans Pelicans and have home games with the Atlanta Hawks, Celtics, Sacramento Kings, Magic, New York Knicks and Chicago.

It will be important for Brooklyn to continue to take care of business at Barclays Center, where their 6-3 December improved them to 9-11 at home (they were just 14-25 at Barclays last season) and their 8-10 road record is respectable for a fringe playoff contender.

The Nets did what they had to do in December to get back into the playoff conversation.

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The challenge moving forward is to continue to play to their identity — ball movement, gang rebounding and defensive flexibility — while the specter of getting LeVert back at some point after the All-Star break looms as the potential equivalent to picking up a player in a deadline trade.