Brooklyn Nets facing crucial road three-game stretch in top seed chase

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 10: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 10: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Roughly two weeks ago, the Brooklyn Nets unceremoniously conceded the Eastern Conference’s top spot to the Philadelphia 76ers, resting Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and even Kyrie Irving down the stretch while doing so.

At the time, it felt like a significantly tough break, having also surrendered the tiebreaker to Philly should the two teams finish with the same record.

Although the Nets went on to recapture the Eastern Conference’s top seed once the Sixers dropped four straight games shortly after, Brooklyn’s own losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks this weekend now put them back behind Philly by a one-game margin.

With another contest against the Bucks (40-24), the Dallas Mavericks (36-28), and the Denver Nuggets (43-21) lying ahead, the Nets look somewhat vulnerable, still with a lot to gain, but also with a lot to lose.

Now a full game behind the Philadelphia 76ers, the Brooklyn Nets’ next three road matchups leave the team with a lot at stake.

It certainly feels like the Nets themselves know what lies at stake as well.

Earlier this week, Irving noted how this stretch, “means a little bit more because it is towards the end of the season”.

Having already clinched a postseason berth, Brooklyn’s playoff positioning remains the only thing left to worry about. But after considering the teams surrounding them and their remaining opponents, any worrisome feelings brewing throughout the borough are quite warranted.

Slightly ahead of Brooklyn, Philadelphia closes out playing the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, and Orlando Magic (twice), who all combine for an abysmal .387 winning percentage. A few games behind the Nets, the Milwaukee Bucks play the Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic (twice), Indiana Pacers, and the Miami Heat after playing Brooklyn Tuesday night. Those remaining teams combine for a .418 winning percentage.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s final opponents mount a collective .582 winning percentage, of course spiked by this week’s opponents: the Bucks, Mavericks and Nuggets. That leaves the Nets with a much rockier road than their Eastern Conference adversaries, but one they still must travel down without too many losses — that is, if they hope to secure an advantageous playoff spot.

Brooklyn Nets vs Milwaukee Bucks, Tuesday May 4th at 7:30 p.m. ET

With the Nets maintaining a 2.5-game lead over the Bucks while holding onto the Eastern Conference’s second seed, Milwaukee owns the greatest chance to make the Nets hurt during this head-to-head matchup. Although we know Brooklyn’s aspirations extend beyond merely holding off the Bucks and cementing themselves as the East’s second seed, doing so and at least maintaining home court advantage over Milwaukee in a potential second-round playoff series remains important as well.

If the Nets were to fall once more against the Bucks Tuesday night, their lead would not only deflate to just 1.5 games, but the tiebreaker would also tilt in Milwaukee’s direction. With the Nets harboring a far more difficult schedule ahead, and a potentially diminished lead in the Eastern Conference, their position certainly feels quite shaky.

Having acknowledged this, at least taking this second game against the Bucks remains imperative for the Nets to avoid this jeopardized state which could easily see them drop to the third seed. If the Nets were to win, though, they’d instead keep pace with Philadelphia and put Milwaukee back into a 3.5 game hole, leaving them with only 11 days to dig their way out.

During their victory this weekend, the Bucks simply rode Giannis Antetokounmpo all the way to the finish as he cruised to 49 points, scoring 36 while guarded by DeAndre Jordan. The Greek Freak also went 4-8 from three-point territory as the Nets let him shoot freely, a strategy that instead worked well during their first matchup. Look for the Nets to make strong defensive adjustments this time around, such as playing bigs more equipped to close out on Giannis, like Blake Griffin (really missing Nic Claxton here).

Nets vs Mavericks, Thursday May 6th at 7:30 p.m. ET

Following the rematch up north, the Nets travel south to face off against the Mavericks who bested them during a late February contest 115-98. Luka Doncic poured in 27 points, seven assists, and six rebounds in that game, while Kristaps Porzingis added 18 points, going 7-13 from the field.

Unlike the Bucks, though, the Mavericks are not chipping at Brooklyn’s heels for playoff seeding given their stance as a Western Conference team. However, they still remain a difficult hurdle to surpass if the Nets hope to stay above Milwaukee and try to top Philly as well. If the Sixers and the Bucks take care of business against their inferior opponents and the Nets proceed drop one against this competitive Dallas team, Brooklyn will find themselves even further behind Philly and possibly just a half-game ahead of Milwaukee with only five contests to go.

Doncic will likely cause trouble for Nets once again, but Porzingis might miss the affair as he continues to labor with right knee soreness. Given Brooklyn’s troubles guarding stretch bigs, so blatantly illustrated during Antetokounmpo’s recent performance, Porzingis’s potential absence might benefit Brooklyn, holding Dallas back from exploiting a noted weakness. Regardless, the Mavs remain a hungry opponent, likely to give Brooklyn their best as they look to avoid the play-in tournament.

To lasso the Mavericks and at least keep themselves afloat beside the Sixers and Bucks, Brooklyn must force role players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Jalen Brunson, or Josh Richardson to beat them while aiming to absolutely harass Doncic. Almost no team generates offense exclusively from one player more than the Mavericks, as Doncic currently owns the league’s second highest usage rate at 34.9%. With Porzingis potentially off the floor, that number will likely inflate, and leave Doncic as the most key weapon for the Nets to neutralize.

Nets vs Nuggets, Saturday May 8th at 10:00 p.m. ET

By the time Brooklyn faces off against MVP favorite Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, we’ll have a better idea of this game’s severity with their contests against the Bucks and Mavericks already decided. But no matter where they find themselves, this game will come as yet another difficult challenge for the Nets, while the Sixers and Bucks continue down a lighter path.

Four weeks into this year’s season, the Nets handled Denver 122-116 behind Durant’s 34 points and a breakout 16-point effort from Bruce Brown. Brooklyn controlled the game’s tempo from buzzer to buzzer, snatching 17 fast break points compared to Denver’s 5. With the Nuggets now more vulnerable without star ball-handler Jamal Murray, Brooklyn should exercise their prior game plan once more and really aim to dictate the game’s pace.

If Brooklyn indeed proceeds this way and sweeps the Nuggets, it could prove fruitful especially if they escape either Milwaukee or Dallas with victories, and if the Sixers slip up once or twice as well.

After this stretch, the Nets must go through the Chicago Bulls (twice), San Antonio Spurs, and Cleveland Cavaliers before closing out their season. Although the Nets own a collective 1-3 record against these clubs so far this year, their combined 78-113 record still endorses them as a much less threatening force. So much instead rides on this week’s road venture, a fact which fans can only hope the Nets realize and consequently address for themselves.