Maybe, just maybe.
I hesitate to say it out loud, really, for fear it might all fall apart.
But here goes: Could there actually be a third team of relevance in the Eastern Conference?
The Brooklyn Nets aren’t yet over .500, even following Sunday’s emotional 85-79 win in Boston over the Celtics and a near-perfect 2014 in which they’ve won 10 of 11 games.
Given the state of the East, that type of success makes up ground in a hurry, and now the Nets find themselves not just on the playoff ladder but a mere 1.5 games out of the Atlantic Division lead, and only 2.5 behind Atlanta and the 3-seed.
Given how poorly the Nets played starting the season, a little skepticism about their rebound is bound to pop up. A healthier (though not healthy) roster has made life easier for coach Jason Kidd, but nobody thinks all the questions around him have been answered. Still, Brooklyn’s run has been a quality one, with wins in Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Madison Square Garden (the latter two by an average of 20 points), and home victories over the Hawks, Golden State, Miami, and Dallas.
That leaves Brooklyn with an 11-10 record against winning teams. Might not sound like much, but Indiana is only 10-8, the Clippers 12-10, and Houston 13-12. At least two of those teams are consistently in the conversation of squads with a chance to make significant hay come playoff time.
Following the season-ending foot injury to Brook Lopez, the Nets have by necessity gone small, with solid results. The starting lineup Kidd has deployed for most of the month – Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston in the backcourt, with Alan Anderson and Paul Pierce on the wing, and Kevin Garnett at center – has been so successful that Deron Williams has willingly come off the bench since missing five games thanks to his recurring ankle problems. (He’s playing plenty of minutes, including the important ones, showing D-Will may understand one of basketball’s more underplayed truisms: Starting is completely overrated, and very often a question of ego management than actual basketball tactics.)
Offensively, the Nets have slowly improved over the last seven weeks, but the biggest transformation has been on their own end, where in January the Nets are allowing 100.4 points per 100 possessions, bested only by Indiana, Chicago, and Memphis, arguably the holy trinity of gritty, physical, muck-it-up squads (when the Grizzlies have Marc Gasol, at least). That’s 6.7 points better than Brooklyn’s mark in December, and 7.0 points beyond November.
The Nets were supposed to be a dark horse contender in the East coming into the season. Old and injury prone, but intriguing and capable of taking advantage should bad luck befall either Indy or Miami. There’s plenty of time left for Brooklyn to again show its age, and some important components of winning basketball (rebounding, for example) have not been a part of their success.
But assuming they’re now becoming something close to the team everyone expected, Brooklyn ought to be the E.C.’s third-best team by season’s end, meaning they have a chance to influence the postseason… even if it just means making Miami work a whole lot harder than the Pacers in the second round.
Onto the rankings.