On Tuesday, the Brooklyn Nets became the first team ever to post a 4-0 season series sweep over LeBron James since he entered the league more than a decade ago.
After being crowned by the Nets, James took out his frustration on TNT’s Craig Sager during a postgame interview when asked if Brooklyn was Miami’s biggest challenge in the East.
“Get out of here, Craig,” James replied. “Next question.”
While James avoided the question, there’s no denying it – Brooklyn has a legitimate chance to win the East now.
There are three keys for the Nets to win the East:
1. Stay healthy – Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Garnett and Deron Williams have missed a combined 74 games this season. In the postseason, Brooklyn can’t afford to have any of those players go down for a significant stretch.
Kirilenko has been arguably the most indispensable sixth man in the league. There’s a direct correlation to Kirilenko’s minutes and Brooklyn’s win total – the more he plays the more the Nets win. Brooklyn is 29-13 (.690) with Kirilenko in the lineup. Furthermore, when Kirilenko plays more than 14 minutes a game, Brooklyn is 24-7 (.774) and 18-2 at Barclays Center.
Garnett has helped anchor the center position since Brook Lopez was lost for the season, splitting time recently with emerging rookie Mason Plumlee. Since Jan. 1, Brooklyn is 16-8 with Garnett in the lineup at center. While Garnett’s stats are at career-low levels across the board due to a severe decrease in minutes and mobility, his presence as a leader on the floor, his passing ability out of the high post and his infectious energy can’t be measured with statistics.
“He’s giving us everything he’s got in those minutes that he plays with his leadership, making great passes, playing great defense, and keeping guys in the right spots,” Joe Johnson said Friday.
Both Garnett and Kirilenko missed large stretches of time primarily due to back spasms, but Brooklyn hopes both will be able to shoulder some crucial playoff minutes shortly.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Kirilenko said Friday. “I’ve always been an energy player so I need to maintain it.”
When Garnett has been out, Plumlee has filled in admirably leading all rookies in PER (18.72) and field goal percentage (.655). Brooklyn is 16-6 when Plumlee starts, including a perfect 10-0 at home. Since the start of April, Plumlee is shooting an astounding 32-for-38 (.842) from the field in seven games.
Williams’ presence has been missed as both a scorer off the ball and as a playmaker when he’s out of the lineup. Without Williams, Brooklyn is a mediocre 11-12 this season. Although he’s not the same player as he was during his prime with the Utah Jazz, Williams is still a vital cog to Brooklyn’s engine. Similar to the correlation between Kirilenko’s minutes and Brooklyn’s win total, two healthy ankles for Williams correlates to more Brooklyn wins.
2. Deron Williams must be “D-Will” – In a league where point guard is the premier position, Williams was originally given a $98 million contract to consistently win that matchup every night. This season, Williams has been relieved of guarding the opponent’s top floor general in favor of Shaun Livingston. However, to maintain Brooklyn’s offensive flow, Williams must be a consistent scoring option off the ball and a playmaker.
“If he plays the way he’s capable of, he’s huge,” one Eastern Conference scout told SheridanHoops. “He plays solid and within himself. He hits threes, gets the team in transition and lets guys like Johnson do their thing.”
With Williams pushing the tempo, Brooklyn is 33-8 when scoring 100 or more points.
Williams has ignited several fast breaks of his own by getting at least one steal in 28 straight games, which is the NBA’s longest streak this season and a franchise record.
Unlike his days in Utah, Williams is not being asked to shoulder the entire load on offense. Therefore, if Williams can show flashes of his Utah days it’ll be an added bonus for Brooklyn.
3. Jason Kidd must take the next step – After a disastrous start to the season at 10-21, Kidd has led a triumphant comeback winning the East’s Coach of the Month award in January and March.
Since Jan. 1, Kidd has led the Nets to a 33-15 record for the second-best record in the East narrowly behind Thibodeau’s Bulls at 35-14.
Once the playoffs start, Kidd goes back to a clean slate potentially against some of the league’s top coaches in Thibodeau, Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel on the biggest stage.
The biggest test for Kidd will be his ability to make adjustments on the fly. In the playoffs, every possession is vital and can be the difference between winning and losing.
“He’s better (at making adjustments),” the scout told SheridanHoops. “How does it translate when every possession is important? I think the jury is out. Paul Pierce and Garnett will lead on the floor.”
Last season, Brooklyn’s Achilles heel was the third quarter as the team would come out flat and squander numerous leads.
However, this season the Nets are an astonishing 39-3 when heading into the 4th quarter with a lead. That supremely successful rate of closing games is reminiscent of former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
In addition, questioned for most of the season about the advanced age of his collective core, Kidd has monitored the minutes of his stars all season with only Johnson and Williams averaging 32 minutes per game. After being burnt out by coach Mike Woodson last season as a player for the New York Knicks, Kidd has made sure the same mistake would not happen again as his role reversed.
While some consider the team too old to make a deep run, the schedule can play a role in keeping the core refreshed and help Kidd maximize the play of his veterans.
“The only benefit the Nets have is that there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs,” another Eastern Conference scout told SheridanHoops.
If these three keys are unlocked, Brooklyn may realize the original expectations set forth by owner Mikhail Prokhorov before the season began – competing for a championship.