3. Race for final 3 Eastern playoff spots tightens
Going into the seven-game, 17-day road trip, conventional wisdom was that it would be a successful trip for the Brooklyn Nets if they could find a way to win three of the seven games.
Entering the trip, it looked like the visits to the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers would be the two best opportunities and the Nets converted both of those.
But they were unable to get a third win on the trip, blowing a double-digit lead at Oklahoma City, getting handled easily Utah and losing to the Clippers on a Lou Williams‘ buzzer-beater before getting back-to-back victories over the Kings and Lakers.
Brooklyn had a 10-point lead with about six minutes left in regulation at Portland Monday night, but wound up dropping a 148-144 decision in double overtime and closed out the trip with Thursday’s loss at Philadelphia.
That leaves the Nets at 38-38 and they fell a half-game behind the Detroit Pistons (38-37) with the loss after the Pistons emphatically ended the six-game winning streak of the Orlando Magic (37-39) with a 115-98 victory in Detroit Thursday.
The Miami Heat (37-38), meanwhile, came back 11 points down to beat the Dallas Mavericks at home Thursday 105-99 to jump past Orlando back into eighth.
That leaves Brooklyn in seventh, a half-game up on the Heat, and they maintain a one-game lead over the Magic — over whom they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Charlotte Hornets, meanwhile, at 35-39 are looming two games behind Brooklyn and the Hornets, at present, would win a tiebreaker based on a better conference record.
The Heat have a 2-1 lead over the Nets in the season series, but Brooklyn is four games better — 25-21 to 21-25 — in conference play, but need a win in the season finale for that to matter.
With the seven-game road trip out of the way, Brooklyn now faces a meat-grinder of a closing six games.
They start with three games at home — hosting the Boston Celtics (44-31, fifth in the East) on Saturday before taking on the Milwaukee Bucks (57-19, best in the NBA) and Toronto Raptors (53-23, second in the East and, oh by the way, second-best in the league).
The weekend of April 6-7 could be crucial for the Nets, when they play their final two road games in a back-to-back. They visit Milwaukee on April 6 and come back 24 hours later against the Indiana Pacers (45-30, fourth in the East).
That will be the sixth and final road back-to-back set of the season for Brooklyn. They’ve gone 3-7 in the first five tries, including 0-5 on the back ends, and were swept in their last one, March 16-17 against the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers.
Should the Nets still be alive at that point, they close out the season at home on April 10 against Miami.
The Nets won the first meetings at home against the Celtics and Raptors, but are 0-2 against Milwaukee — including a 113-94 loss at Barclays Center on Feb. 4 that was their worst homecourt defeat of the season — and are 0-2 against Indiana as well.
Their first meeting with Miami at Barclays Center went to the Heat 120-107 on Nov. 14.
Orlando still has road games at Indiana and Toronto on their current trip and finish on the road at Boston and Charlotte, but have home games against the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks in between.
Miami still has a home-and-home with Boston remaining, as well as road games at New York, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto (as well as Brooklyn) and a home game against the 76ers the night before they get to Barclays Center to finish.
Charlotte opens a four-game Western swing on Friday, visiting the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Utah and the New Orleans Pelicans and also have road games at Detroit and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their two remaining home games are with the Raptors and Magic.
It’s scoreboard-watching season in Brooklyn, but if the Nets can take care of business at home and maybe eke out a 4-2 record down the stretch, that would likely be enough to seal the deal.