The season is 82 games and each win or loss is weighted pretty much exactly the same throughout the course of an NBA season. But Monday’s defeat at the hands of division-leading Toronto is a loss that felt like much more than that. With the way the Brooklyn Nets have played so far since the calendar turned to 2014, a division title was beginning to feel like a foregone conclusion. In the NBA’s worst division, the Nets are the only team that appears to have the cache and wherewithal to really challenge in the second round of the postseason.
It looks as though, for now at least, the Toronto Raptors are here to stay, thanks to the stellar play of point guard Kyle Lowry, a forgotten man of sorts who has quietly been the best point guard in this conference the entire season, All-Star Game be damned. Things aren’t all bad in Brooklyn. The Nets, after all, are still 10-3 since Jan. 1 and have beaten every team they’ve played outside of these pesky Raptors and a red-hot OKC team. But as the schedule stiffens, will the start of 2014 look like merely a mirage or will they continue to develop what is becoming a truly unique identity as a hard-nosed, defensive team that plays small and has a bench that produces as good or better than their starters?
Last Week: 2-2 (20-24 overall)
Friday, Jan. 24: Brooklyn holds off a late Dallas rally behind a big performance from Mirza Teletovic
It wasn’t quite 62 at Madison Square Garden, but Mirza Teletovic had a terrific night in his own right in the same city Carmelo Anthony lit on fire. It was a second quarter for the ages for the Bosnian sniper: 24 points, 5-for-6 from 3 and a step back jumper over Dirk Nowitzki that had a sold out Barclays Center crowd buzzing the rest of the night. Teletovic would finish with a game-high (and career-best) 34 points. For the Mavericks, former Net Vince Carter helped lead a furious fourth quarter rally to bring Dallas within striking distance. In the end, however, Brooklyn made enough free throws to hold off Dallas for the victory; their fourth in a row.
Sunday, Jan. 26: An emotional return to Boston for Garnett and Pierce, but Brooklyn is able to extend their streak with an 85-79 victory
Did anyone in Boston really care about the outcome of this game? Probably not. This is a team basically forfeiting this season for the greater good of their franchise. So with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in town, the Celtics used this as a night of celebration and recollection. It was an evening that saw two extended tribute videos for two all-timers; two familiar faces now wearing different uniforms. It was a difficult situation for both Pierce and Garnett, two players as beloved as any in a city with the richest tradition of winning in the history of this league. Pierce said as much in a post-game interview with ESPN:
“I was telling Kevin, I was telling everybody — this was the toughest game I ever had to play, It was tougher than any championship game. Tougher than any Game 7. This game was just so hard to really just focus and concentrate on what was at hand.”
It showed throughout, as both Pierce and Garnett managed just six points apiece. But Kevin Garnett made the play of the game, stepping in front of a pass for a steal and a breakaway layup to seal it. For the Nets, Andray Blatche scored 17 off the bench.
Monday, Jan. 27: Toronto snaps Brooklyn’s five-game winning streak with a 104-103 victory at Barclays Center
It was as ill-advised a pass as you’ll ever see. It was failed basketball 101. Maybe most importantly, it was a play that led to a loss that should have been a win. So, what exactly was Deron Williams thinking on his now infamous inbounds pass that essentially gave the Toronto Raptors a victory at Barclays Center?
“I turned it over,” he said. “Didn’t have any timeouts, pretty much everybody was covered up, the first couple of options. I kind of saw Joe open, but just kind of a bad pass.”
Deron Williams post-game response was as straight forward as always. Fact is, one play doesn’t decide a game. Garnett missed a late chippy. Kyle Lowry hit a half-court heave at the halftime horn. This is a game Brooklyn should have been able to put on ice earlier but could not. The Raptors are a solid group of players with a whole significantly greater than the sum of it’s parts thanks to the Rudy Gay trade. With the Knicks now streaking as well, it appears the Atlantic Division will be a dog fight.
Friday, Jan. 31: Kevin Durant and the Thunder close out January with a blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets, 120-95
The Brooklyn Nets found the formula for stopping Kevin Durant’s streak. Play poorly enough to force Scott Brooks to leave him on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. Durant may not have scored 30, but he showed why he’s the front runner for this season’s MVP trophy with a 26-point evening that required just 12 shot attempts. Serge Ibaka added 25 points on a perfect 12-of-12 shooting from the floor. Brooklyn was only able to secure 17 total team rebounds, good for an NBA record-low. Amazingly, Deron Williams played the entire fourth quarter in a game that had already been decided. That has to make him the most expensive garbage time player in the league, right? Also for the Nets, Marquis Teague saw his first action in a Brooklyn uniform. He scored seven points and was the only player on the roster with a positive plus/minus.
THIS WEEK’S MVP: Andray Blatche
“Project Zero” may be the NBA’s best bargain. He also might just be the league’s best backup center. Using a skill set that very few in the NBA have at 7′, Andray Blatche has done an excellent job creating mismatches all month; and over his last five games he’s averaging 14 points, four rebounds, a block and a steal per game on 50 percent shooting. For the second straight year, he’s maintained a Player Effecency Rating better than 20 and in the absence of Brook Lopez he’s done a terrific job providing quality minutes at the center position. Not bad for a guy being paid the league minimum by the Nets.
THIS WEEK’S LVP: Deron Williams
Fun fact: Deron Williams is due $19,754,465 next year, $21,042,800 in 2015-16, and $22,331,135 in 2016-17. He’s averaging 13.2 points and 7.1 assists per game when he’s actually healthy. And, he’s coming off the bench for a team that’s four games under .500. Yeesh. Not exactly what general manager Billy King envisioned when he built this Brooklyn team around a point guard who at one point was considered by many to be the best in the NBA. It’s time to stop making excuses for Deron Williams and time to hold him accountable for his struggles. Either that or explore trade options (if anyone will even take him and his contract at this point).
Joe Cool an All-Star
Joe Johnson hasn’t been very consistent this season, but he’s been the best player on the Brooklyn Nets and remains the best closer in the NBA. Good enough for the NBA coaches, as Johnson is now headed to his seventh All-Star Game. He beat out the likes of Lance Stephenson, Kyle Lowry and Arron Affalo for the final spot in the Eastern Conference. Should Joe Johnson have made it? Hard to say, but he certainly deserved to be in the mix and (as usual) he’s been the consummate professional all season. Big congratulations to a guy who’s easy to root for.
Plumlee headed to the Rising Stars Challenge
It’s been a brutal year for NBA rookies, but the Brooklyn Nets certainly drafted a player who looks like he belongs in the league late in the first round when they selected Mason Plumlee in the 2013 NBA Draft. Plumlee has had his moments this season despite being used sparingly thanks to Brooklyn’s deep front line. Rookie/All-Star events tend to end up taking on the form of a pick-up game; so Plumlee’s athleticism at 7′ should be on display for an audience that probably hasn’t seen much of him.
Andray Blatche-Starting Center for the Philippines?
In a story that’s sure to draw a collective “huh?” from anyone paying attention, Andray Blatche confirmed an international report that he may in fact play for the Filipino National Team during the FIBA World Cup this summer. Blatche, of course, isn’t Filipino at all. “I’m not too sure about anything about it,” Blatche told beat writers after a Brooklyn practice. “They brought it to my attention, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool.” FIBA rules permit one naturalized player per roster, so Blatche would have to become a citizen of the Philippines before the event started. Blatche being Blatche.
The Brooklyn Nets head to Indiana for the second half of a back to back. Expect Lance Stephenson to be foaming from the mouth for an opportunity to match up against the player who was selected over him to be in the All-Star game, Joe Johnson. Andrei Kirilenko is day-to-day, his status is uncertain. Brooklyn will follow that game by coming home to play the Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs next week at Barclays Center.