A game against a bad team in full free fall doesn’t often take on major significance, The Brooklyn Nets are an exception in Wednesday’s game at Cleveland.
It’s not a marquee matchup by any means when the 29-29 Brooklyn Nets face the 12-45 Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
The game had lost so much of its luster that ESPN switched Brooklyn’s lone scheduled appearance on the network from Wednesday’s game to a March 13 matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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The Cavaliers aren’t quite eliminated from playoff contention officially, but they are 15 games behind the eighth-place Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference standings and have a tragic number of 12 (the combination of Pistons wins and Cavaliers losses before Cleveland is eliminated).
Yet for the Nets, Wednesday’s game is hugely significant.
Brooklyn saved its season with its torrid stretch from Dec. 7 to Jan. 25, a period during which the Nets were 19-5, improving from 8-18 to 27-23 and jumping from 12th place in the East to sixth.
But it’s been a struggle of late for the Nets, who are just 2-6 since their Jan. 25 victory over the New York Knicks and are only 1-4 in February.
That’s the origin of the significance Wednesday’s game has taken on.
Brooklyn can, with a win, enter the All-Star break with a winning record for the first time in six years, when the inaugural version of the Brooklyn Nets were 31-22 heading into the break.
Even though the 2013-14 Nets would finish better than .500, that team went into the break just 24-27. That was also the last season Brooklyn finished a full season with a winning mark.
Getting to the All-Star break at 30-29 would be a major accomplishment for a team most prognosticators pegged for between 32-34 victories all season.
Getting to the same point at 29-30, while not statistically significant, would feel like a bit of a letdown after the huge surge that brought Brooklyn from the bottom of the East to firmly in the middle of the playoff pack.
The game also takes on some importance within the context of the Eastern Conference playoff picture as the season enters its final quarter.
The Charlotte Hornets have moved to within a single game of the Nets’ perch in sixth place, while the surging Pistons have won four straight and are now just 1½ games behind.
Also winners of four in a row are the Orlando Magic, who occupy 10th place in the East, but trail the sixth-place Nets by on;y three games.
Sixth appears to be the hard cap for Brooklyn this season as there is a 7½-game gap between the Nets and the Boston Celtics/Philadelphia 76ers tandem that is tied for fourth place.
To have even a mathematical shot at reaching that level, the Nets would likely have to win 22 of their last 24 games or get a lot of help in the form of a collapse by the Celtics, 76ers or Indiana Pacers.
As much fun as going 22-2 to finish the season would be, it’s not realistic for a team that comes back from the All-Star break with 12 road games remaining, nine against teams currently occupying playoff spots.
Brooklyn catches a break with its remaining home schedule — only seven of the 11 remaining games at Barclays Center are against teams in the current playoff picture.
The Nets face very much of an uphill climb when they return from the break on Feb. 21. Getting even a modicum of a head start with a win Wednesday night at Cleveland could send the club into All-Star Weekend with momentum … and a thoroughly unexpected mark above the .500 barrier.