By Steve Lichtenstein
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So I was slightly off. The Brooklyn Nets are actually in the 2015 NBA playoffs.
Oh, I was on target with how the Nets finished the regular season. They predictably no-showed a must-win game to lose to undermanned Chicago at home on Monday before scraping by with a solid 12-minute effort to claim a 101-88 victory over lottery-bound Orlando on Wednesday.
The Bulls' loss transferred the proverbial ball to the Pacers' hands. Indiana was hot, battle-tested, and willing to do whatever was needed on the court to get the job done.
In other words, the anti-Nets.
I didn't see the Pacers losing again. What I also didn't foresee were all the breaks that fell Brooklyn's way leading up to the final buzzer of Indiana's 95-83 defeat in Memphis on Wednesday that allowed the Nets to claim their third consecutive postseason berth.
The Western Conference rat-race, whose twists and turns left the door open for the Grizzlies to grab home-court advantage in their first-round series. Without the Pelicans' win over the Spurs earlier on Wednesday night, maybe Memphis star center Marc Gasol would have been put on a minutes restriction more appropriate for a more meaningless affair instead of pouring in a career-high 33 points to help save Lionel Hollins--his former coach and current Brooklyn boss—from further embarrassment.
Before that there was the Pacers' energy-sapping contest with the Wizards on Tuesday night. Indiana did win its sixth straight game, but it was a slog that took double overtime, leaving the Pacers short on gas in their tank against the Grizzlies.
When Pacers star guard Paul George had to be carried off by his teammates with 10:37 remaining in the fourth quarter with what was reported to be a left calf injury (as opposed to anything related to the scary right leg fracture he suffered while playing last summer for the U.S. National Team), I knew the premise of this post would have to be changed.
At 38-44, the Nets were ever-so-close to lottery relegation, only that pick was swapped with Atlanta's as part of the summer 2012 trade for Joe Johnson. Had the Nets—the most expensive team in the league--choked, the egg on Brooklyn general manager Billy King's face would have gone viral, maybe even in Russia so that owner Mikhail Prokhorov couldn't possibly ignore it.
All that post-mortem analysis gets tabled for now.
For maybe two weeks.
I can't think of any serious prognosticator who'll go so far out on a limb to suggest that the Nets have a chance to beat the top-seeded Hawks in a best-of-seven series that commences on Sunday in Atlanta.
No, the only question for this series seems to be: Will the Nets win a game?
The Hawks looked unstoppable in their four regular-season wins over Brooklyn. The closest contest came a week ago at Barclays Center—a 114-111 Atlanta victory that was more notable for the earlier-in-the-day arrests of reserve Hawks Pero Antic and Thabo Sefolosha than it was for the Nets' end-game bungles.
The Hawks also played that game without All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, a tough cover for whom the Nets have historically had no answer.
Thaddeus Young (and by extension King, who stole Young from the Timberwolves at the trade deadline for Kevin Garnett), deserves credit for helping to resurrect the moribund Nets with his wondrous moves around the basket, but he's not in Millsap's zip code when it comes to shooting proficiency and banging bodies.
Unfortunately, Millsap is far from the only Hawk who requires attention. Under coach Mike Budenholzer's system, Atlanta is able to spread shooters all over the floor for point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder. Wings Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll convert a ridiculously high percentage of their three-point opportunities and center Al Horford can score inside and out. Off the bench, the Hawks are just loaded with long-range bombers like Mike Scott and Kent Bazemore.
The Nets are a bad defensive team as is--their 105 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks 24th out of 30 teams, per NBA.com. In their four games against the Hawks, the Nets have yielded an insane 118.3 points per 100 possessions. Atlanta shot almost 50 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three-point territory.
If that continues in this series, the Nets will be swept. It won't matter if center Brook Lopez matches Horford point-for-point, or if forward Joe Johnson goes off like he did last postseason against Toronto, or if enigmatic point guard Deron Williams finally delivers a big-game performance in an actual big game.
Whether or not the Nets win a game will come down to their defense. If the Nets just wait for Atlanta to have a bad day on the shooting range, well, they'll probably run out of time. Can Hollins devise a scheme that both limits Atlanta's three-point threats while at the same time protects the paint off the Hawks' initial pick-and-roll actions?
There's no easy solution. Because Lopez is too slow to blitz the pick-and-roll (forcing the ballhandler back toward his defender) and switching is a bad idea, the off-ball defending Nets are often caught cheating in over-help positions, which leads to open three-pointer after open three-pointer.
Nets radio analyst Tim Capstraw likes to remind his listeners that the defensive process starts out front with the point guard. Last month, an NBA scout told me that his analytics pointed to Williams and backup Jarrett Jack as two of the poorer defensive point guards in the league in terms of limiting opponents' penetration.
This is the area where the Nets need to improve to simply win a game. I've seen Williams when he gets in lock-down mode, but it's usually for just a brief span. He'll read the screens and fight through them, all the while staying attached to his man's shooting hand.
Too often, though, D-Will's mind has wandered—maybe because he couldn't make a shot or he had been carelessly turning the ball over. Or maybe he just didn't give a damn.
For whatever cosmic reasons, on Sunday the Nets will be competing in games with even more meaning. I was wrong on Monday about whether they would get there. That won't stop me from putting on my soothsayer hat again.
I'm going with the Hawks—in five games, not four.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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