Nets Pull Away in The 4th To Beat The Cavaliers, But They Are Walking a Thin Line in Their Playoff Push (Video)Read Now
The Nets defeated the Cavaliers at Barclays Center on Wednesday night, 113-107. The win pushed the Nets record to 34-33, and with 15 games remaining in the regular season, they are currently the #7 seed in the eastern conference playoff picture. Taking a macro view, that’s a pretty good position to be in for Brooklyn. They began the season with faint hopes of making the playoffs, but then something happened. After a gutwrenching losing streak in November, and losing breakout star Caris LeVert to injury that same month, the team found its identity. Led by first-time all-star D’Angelo Russell, the team ripped off a 20-7 record immediately following that late November into early December 8-game losing streak. That run vaulted them into playoff contention and the talk of a playoff push started bubbling in and around Brooklyn.
Since that 20-7 run, the team has played below .500 ball (6-8). Part of that was due to the mounting injuries to an already thin roster. LeVert was out for the majority of the season (returned Feb. 8). Spencer Dinwiddie had thumb surgery in January and missed several weeks, only returning last Friday, March 1st. Now that the team is back to full strength, there are some kinks to work out on the floor.
Basketball is a game of rhythm. When teams are playing well it’s because they are connected on the defensive end and offensively, there is a fulcrum that everyone else plays off. In other words, roles are defined and everyone operates within their roles as a cohesive unit. For much of the Nets good play this season, Russell was that fulcrum. Particularly when LeVert and Dinwiddie were out. But they are back now and trying to get reacclimated for this stretch run.
In the last two games, head coach Kenny Atkinson moved LeVert to the bench, opting to go with veteran Allen Crabbe and more shooting around Russell. Small sample size, but the Nets are 2-0 in those games. Keeping LeVert on the bench to start the game has allowed the second unit to have two downhill, attacking ball handlers (Dinwiddie) with shooting around them to help space the floor. It was a gutsy move by Atkinson, but one that had to be done. At this late stage of the season, the Nets don’t have the luxury of a full slate of games to work this out. They need to keep winning games, ahead of a brutal 7 game road trip that begins on March 13th in Oklahoma City.
Last night’s win did have some troubling signs for the Nets. After a solid first quarter that saw them go up by 11, the Nets allowed the lowly Cavaliers (16-49) to get back within 5 points at halftime. Coming out for the third quarter, the Nets defense was leaky, they gave up 35 points and were outscored by 10. In a game they should have put away early, the Nets let the Cavaliers hang around and gain confidence. Brooklyn ultimately pulled out the win, but this type of uneven play is a little cause for concern.
Atkinson and any coach will tell you, there are no easy wins in the NBA. They are right. But, there are games that certain teams should win. If the Nets fancy themselves a playoff team, they cannot lose games to teams behind them in the standings, like the Cavaliers or the Washington Wizards last week. They just can’t. Atkinson and GM Sean Marks often talk about the program and culture they are building in Brooklyn, how it’s a process and they are creating for the long term. Part of that process is the players understanding and learning the levels of winning basketball in the NBA.
For this collection of players, this is all new territory. Playing games this late in the season, that matter, and have real stakes is brand new. That’s a difficult adjustment, given the rigors and grind of a long NBA season. In years past, these players see vacation light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Of course, they prefer to be in the position they are in now, contending for the playoffs. But it’s still an adjustment, both physically and mentally. They are going to have to activate a level of intensity, they have yet to experience as a collective.
Brooklyn’s next two games are against the Hawks on the road Saturday, and back home for the Pistons on Monday. These are must-win games if the Nets are going to solidify their playoff standing. But they won’t be easy. The Hawks are not in the playoff race, but they are in many ways what the Nets were a season or two ago, but with higher upside. Atlanta is a young team with a possible future star in rookie Trae Young, GM Travis Schlenk and head coach Lloyd Pierce are developing infrastructure and a program to enable long term success. Despite their poor record, they are competing. They would like nothing more than to show they can beat a team like Brooklyn, that’s in the playoff race. The Nets have to start thinking and preparing for games and teams that will have that mindset. Brooklyn isn’t an upper echelon team, but there is an element now of them being the “hunted” rather than the “hunters”. With the Pistons, that’s the team directly above them in the standings (they are technically tied for 6th but Detroit has two games at hand), another “must win” for the Nets.
You could argue that the Nets are ahead of schedule but Marks, Atkinson, and the players would likely all disagree. Earning a playoff berth is critical for the success of this franchise. Cornerstone players like LeVert, Russell, Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Rodions Kurucs all need to taste this level of competition for their personal development, as well as the team. These last 15 games will be the biggest test this collective franchise has faced in their short tenure, how they emerge will tell a lot about the future of the Brooklyn Nets.
Following Wednesday night’s win over the Cavaliers, D’Angelo Russell and Rodions Kurucs talked about the importance of the win and the team’s thoughts on making the playoffs.