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Joe Johnson has been Brooklyn's best player all year, but is he deserving of an All-Star bid? Mandatory Credit: Jim O

Brooklyn Nets Weekly: Can This Team Contend?

Jan 21, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Andray Blatche’s versatility and fearlessness off the bench has been one of the many keys to Brooklyn’s turnaround this year.

The Brooklyn Nets have been the NBA’s best team in 2014.  Read that sentence again.  Eleven games under .500, “Fire Kidd”, and “blow it all up” all seem like a distant memories now as Brooklyn has a No. 3 seed squarely in its cross hairs following an 8-1 start in the New Year.  The Nets are going to be in the playoffs, that’s a virtual given thanks to how bad the Eastern Conference is.  Brooklyn is currently sitting in the seventh spot in the Eastern  Conference and they trail Toronto in the Atlantic Division (good for at least a No. 4 seed) by just 2.5 games.  But is this a team that now belongs in the conversation with the rest of the NBA’s title contenders?  Can the Brooklyn Nets win a championship in 2014?

LOOKING BACK

Last Week: 3-0 (18-22 overall)

Thursday, Jan. 16: Brooklyn takes care of business in London and destroys Atlanta, 127-110

Jason Kidd called this a “business trip.”  After suffering what essentially amounted to a schedule loss in Toronto, the Nets headed to London’s O2 Arena to become the first team in NBA history to play three games consecutively in three different countries.  One thing that traveled?  Joe Johnson‘s hot hand.  Joe scored 26 first-half points against his former team, including a 3-pointer at the first half buzzer to give the Nets a 12-point halftime lead.  That momentum carried over into the second half, as the Nets outscored Atlanta by 13 in the third to put the game out of reach.  On the night, Johnson would finish with 29 points.  Andray Blatche added 20 points, 14 rebounds and six assists off the bench.

Monday, Jan. 20: The Nets get revenge against their crosstown rivals with a 23-point victory at Madison Square Garden

“Brooklyn” chants at Madison Square Garden?  That’s how bad it’s gotten for the Knickerbockers.  The Nets came into this game on a mission after a 30- point home loss to Carmelo Anthony‘s Knicks earlier in the season.  But would this team be jet-lagged?  Deron Williams returned for the Nets and actually suggested he come off the bench, not wanting to mess with the team’s chemistry.  It worked, as Brooklyn jumped out to a 27-16 lead after the first quarter.  Johnson stayed hot, scoring 13 in the stanza.  Fact is, the Knicks were never able to make this a game.  Poor perimeter defense from New York led to 14 Nets 3-pointers and in the stat of the night, Brooklyn had more assists (25) than the Knicks had field goals (24).  Johnson finished with 25 points, six rebounds and five assists.  Andray Blatche had a double-double and Deron Williams added 13 in his first game back.  For the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony had 29.

Tuesday, Jan. 21: Even a blizzard can’t stop Brooklyn as they defeat Orlando comfortably, 101-90

It felt like an old Izod Center crown in Brooklyn thanks to about eight inches of snow in the tri-state area.  But even in front of a half-empty arena, the Brooklyn Nets took care of business against a bad team.  The Nets, an older team, have struggled mightily in back-to-backs this year.  But thanks to a comfortable win at the Garden the afternoon before, Brooklyn had a full roster to work with, including Kevin Garnett.  The Big Ticket was an efficient 4-for-5 from the floor and grabbed five rebounds in his 18 minutes of action.  The guy who stole show?  Andray Blatche, who finished with 18 points, including an absolute facial on Kyle O’Quinn that preceded a step back 3-pointer a play later.  Just Blatche being Blatche.

LAST WEEK’S MVP: Joe Johnson

So, does anyone still think Joe Johnson is declining?  Over his last five games, he’s averaging 22.0 points per game on 54.4 percent shooting, including 48.4 percent from downtown.  He’s had two game-winners on the season and percentage-wise, he is having his best shooting season since he left the Phoenix Suns.  The key to Johnson’s success lately has been a willingness to exploit mismatches.  Virtually every night, Johnson is defended by smaller players.  Instead of settling for outside jumpers, he’s made it a point to punish people in the paint.  This has not only led to easier baskets for him, but for his teammates as well.  Teams are left with no choice but to help on Johnson in the post and it’s led to open shots for other teammates.  Johnson, not known for his passing, has notched at least five assists in four of his last five games.  Now the real question: can he keep it going with Deron Williams now back in the lineup?

LAST WEEK’S LVP: N/A

This isn’t a cop out.  Look up and down this roster.  There isn’t a Brooklyn Net playing poorly at the moment.  Speaks volumes to the chemistry this team has developed and the job coach Jason Kidd has done in rallying this team together.

KEVIN GARNETT: RELOADED

Kevin Garnett isn’t cooked, after all.  Over his last five games, in fact, he’s shooting a scorching 72 percent from the floor, with most of his offense coming on perimeter jumpers.  The loss of Brook Lopez has forced Garnett to slide over to the center position.  While he may not like playing there every night, fact is, he simply wasn’t effective playing power forward.  Now in the middle, Garnett is back to being the game-wrecking defensive anchor he’s been his whole career.  How good has he been defensively?  Well, I can’t say it any better than Devin Kharpertian over at thebrooklyngame.com did:

His impact on the defensive end is almost too big for statistics to grasp, but let’s give it a shot: since January 1st, the Nets have allowed opponents to score 107.2 points per 100 possessions with Garnett off the floor, and 87.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

I fear stating the numbers doesn’t quantify how ridiculous they are, so let’s make some comparisons. Indiana’s league-best defense allows teams to score 92.8 points per 100 possessions. The Garnett-led Nets in 2014 are nearly a full five points better than that. Utah’s league-worst defense clocks in at around 107.6 points per 100 possessions, just a hair below the Garnett-benched Nets.

In sum: with Kevin Garnett on the floor, the Nets make the league’s best defense look average. With Garnett off the floor, the Nets look like the league’s worst defense. It’s that significant.

Keep in mind, Garnett is still on a minutes limit.  He never delves deeper than the first six minutes of the first quarter and he’s averaging just 22.5 minutes per contest on the season.  Come playoff time, when games are spaced out and the season is winding down, that should change.  It’ll be interesting to see how much Garnett has left in the tank by then.

MIRZA, PLUMLEE OR JOE AT ALL-STAR WEEKEND?

Should Joe Johnson be an All-Star?  It’s a tough sell, statistically.  But Johnson has been the best player on one of the hottest teams in the NBA and he remains the league’s best closer as well.  An argument can certainly be made, but the talent pool is deep with players who have statistically been better and more consistent all year.  Although Joe may not make the All-Star team, there’s reason to believe we could see some other Nets on All-Star Saturday night.  For starters, how about a campaign to get Mirza Teletovic in the 3-Point Contest?  The Bosnian stretch 4 is shooting 42 percent from deep this year, good for 14th in the NBA.  His quick trigger may be perfectly suited for the contest as well.  Staying with that, how about Mason Plumlee in the dunk contest?  Traditionally, big men do not fare well in the event.  But Plumlee has shown early on in his career that he’s got a knack for athletic throw downs.  Here’s hoping we see a member of the Brooklyn Nets or two that weekend.

NEXT UP:

Can Brooklyn stay hot?  The Dallas Mavericks come to Barclays Center on Friday night.  That’ll be followed by a trip to Boston on Sunday.  It’ll be the first game Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce have played there since the trade, so emotions are likely to run high.  The next night, the Nets will take on the division-leading Toronto Raptors at home.

 

Tags: Andray Blatche Brooklyn Nets Joe Johnson Kevin Garnett Mirza Teletovic

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