By the end of 2013, the Brooklyn Nets looked like a team needing as much construction as the Gowanus Expressway.
Since the start of 2014, Brooklyn has cruised up the Eastern Conference standings like a driver in the HOV lane.
“I think with the way we’ve been playing as of late since the All-Star break, since the turn of the new year, it’s the Nets team that I envisioned from the beginning of the season,” Paul Pierce said after Wednesday’s win as Brooklyn eclipsed the .500 mark for the first time all season.
After ending 2013 swerving on the road with an abysmal 10-21 record, Brooklyn pulled a U-turn, going 20-8 since Jan. 1st.
Before Wednesday’s game, I asked coach Jason Kidd what allowed Brooklyn to navigate through the detours on the road back to respectability.
“I think the biggest thing is trust from the beginning,” Kidd replied. “We probably would all agree our record wasn’t very good, but we continued to stay with the process, stay together and we’ve done it as a team. Being .500, being below .500, being over .500 you’ve got to go out there to get better each time you take the court and get ready for the playoffs. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Since Jan. 1st, the Nets are tied with the Clippers for the league’s best home record (12-2) and have the best winning percentage against the Western Conference (9-3).
One of the keys to the turnaround has been a rejuvenated defensive effort.
Since the start of 2014, Brooklyn leads the league in forced turnovers per game (17.6) and points off turnovers per game (21.1).
Brooklyn has also improved in the third quarter, which was the team’s Achilles heel dating back to last season.
In the 31 games prior to 2014, the Nets were outscored by an average of 3.3 points in the third quarter. In the 28 games since Jan. 1st, the Nets have reversed the trend and outscored opponents by 3.3 points in the third quarter.
Furthermore, Brooklyn is 14-1 when opponents score less than 20 points in the third quarter and is 24-5 when leading at the half, including 22 consecutive victories when leading at halftime.
In addition, Marcus Thornton has become a valuable spark plug igniting the offensive engine off the bench since being acquired from the Kings.
In five games with Brooklyn, the Nets are 4-1 with Thornton in the lineup as he’s averaged 13.4 points per game and shot the ball from the field (.471) and downtown (.375) at the highest percentage of his career – albeit in a small sample size.
“We knew what type of offensive player he was, what type of weapon he is, and now I think he’s enjoying this opportunity to be on this team playing with us and we’re glad we have him,” said Deron Williams.
“I think we have everything to be at the top,” Kirilenko told Sheridan Hoops. “Talent, working at it, basketball skills. It all matters on the particular night. Sometimes we look like we can beat anybody, some nights we look horrible. We’re still not that consistent.”
Kirilenko was referring to the 10-3 record in January followed by the 7-5 record in February. In March, the team is off to a 3-0 start.
“I think we match up with anybody in the Eastern Conference from top to bottom,” said Pierce. “It’s good that we’re in the playoff race. We don’t know which seed it’ll be right now since it changes every week, but top to bottom we feel like we match up with anybody and I think we have the necessary experience to move forward no matter who we play.”
“We’ve got to keep fighting,” said Johnson. “Obviously we’ve been in an uphill climb pretty much the whole year and to get to this point, where we’re a game over .500, it’s not a time to exhale. We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas and keep going.”
As Johnson mentioned, for Brooklyn to continue cruising toward “Playoff Boulevard,” a No. 3 seed and the Atlantic Division title, the team must keep its foot on the gas down the home stretch with a small ball lineup that has caused mismatches for opposing defenses.
“I think the biggest thing is we went small,” Mason Plumlee told Sheridan Hoops on Wednesday, his 24th birthday. “If you just look at it from a strategic view, putting Paul at the four, fours can’t match up with Paul. I think it’s helped him out tremendously and obviously if he’s going it’s good for everybody. We’ve really spread out the floor more.”
I discussed the impact of Brooklyn’s small ball lineup further enforcing Plumlee’s point about the team’s floor spacing and improvement in a previous Sheridan Hoops column.
As it stands now, Brooklyn has weathered the storm of rainy conditions (injury and chemistry issues) on the metaphorical road to the playoffs. Going forward, the team must continue to avoid traffic from the Raptors, Bulls, or Wizards, one of whom the Nets will likely face in the first round. The Nets hope to take the Gowanus Expressway and get off at Atlantic Avenue on their way to a playoff showdown with the Heat or Pacers afterward.