Hello Playoffs Part II – Preview & Predictions

Center Court - Game 1 2013 Playoffs vs Bulls

Center Court – Game 1 2013 Playoffs vs Bulls

Remember when the Brooklyn Nets were 10-21 and coming off an ugly blowout to the San Antonio Spurs on the final day of 2013? Remember when they opened up 2014 with a Joe Johnson game-winner over the Oklahoma City Thunder the next day?

Sound familiar?  It should. Except for a slightly better record to start things out last year, it’s the same thing that happened last season during the Nets inaugural season in Brooklyn.  Two years in a row this team has turned things around after a blowout loss and a big win over the top teams in the Western Conference.
Last year Brooklyn  finished the regular season at 49-33.  They were never 11 games under last season, and yet only finished with 5 more losses than this year. Two different teams in may ways? Sure.  But they do share similar regular season story-lines.
However, that is where the similarities end.  Because what we thought would be a rematch of the Bulls-Nets series of a year ago, has turned into a 3-6 match-up between division foes.  A rough end to the season for Brooklyn dropped them to the 6th seat and into a 1st round bout with the Toronto Raptors.
The two teams split the season series 2-2, and boy was their final match-up of the regular season exciting.  Yours truly was there in person, and when I say it’s one of the best basketball games I’ve ever seen, I’m not exaggerating.  Runs, big shot after big shot by both clubs ending in a Nets 101-9 win at Barclays Center.
Toronto wasn’t supposed to be here.  Going into the season, thoughts were they’d tank the season and hope to get a top 3 pick in this years loaded draft, and maybe land Canadian star Andrew Wiggins.  That was made, what we thought more evident when the Raptors traded away Rudy Gay early in the season.  Yet here we are, getting ready to watch them host a first round match-up as Atlantic Division Champs.  Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan pu this team on their athletic backs and drove them into the postseason.
Athletic. Young. And hungry.  That’s the Toronto Raptors in a nutshell.  And the Nets should be afraid.  What couldve been a defensive battle has turned into an offensive slug-fest.  Both teams have been crazy good in 2014, but as the Nets limp into the playoffs, the Raptors have continued their hot play.  Inexperience up and down the lineup has to do battle with the veteran laden Nets squad.
For Brooklyn to have success, they have to limit turnovers.  Toronto’s speed can turn those into easy buckets in transition.  Not to mention Mason Plumlee, Kevin Garnett and (if he gets minutes), Andray Blatche have to do work down low.  Without Brook Lopez, they’ve been limited as far as having a rim defender, and though he’s not a great rebounding big man, Lopez makes you work for 2nd chance opportunities.  The Raptors front court of Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross are quick, strong and not afraid to attack the paint.
But for me, the biggest match-up comes in the back court.  Lowry and DeRozan are one of the better scoring back-courts in the league.  Deron Williams has issues defending smaller, quicker guards, though Shaun Livingston’s presence will help.
So are the Nets better off in the 6th or would they have been better suited for that rematch with the Chicago Bulls?  Only time will tell, but I think if both teams play to the high levels seen since January, you can bet it’s going to be a fun and intense series.

So what will be some of the keys heading into this series if the Nets want to avoid being knocked out by the Bulls in two consecutive seasons?

  • Kevin Garnett must be healthy. You don’t need 30 minutes from him with Mason Plumlee playing well, but KG’s still a great defensive player, and their only real rim defender. He also has a fire that burns even brighter in the playoffs. This is why he was brought over in the off-season. Since returning from the back spasms, he’s looked very good.  Maybe the time off his legs will mean big performances coming up.
  • Deron Williams needs to be on every game.  Remember when he carried this team to the playoffs last season? He’s shown flashes of that player this season, but needs to show it more than once or twice a week. Shaun Livingston has been remarkable this season, but Brooklyn only goes as far as D-Will and his max contract can take them.
  • Mirza Teletovic and/or Marcus Thornton need to be consistent sparks off the bench. The Bulls can defend with the best of them, but when these players get hot, it doesn’t matter who is on them.  If they can come in, especially if the starters get off to a slow start, and hit a couple of 3s quickly, this team can possibly rattle a young Raptors squad.
  • Plumlee and Livingston need to limit the bad early fouls.  They’re too important to be on the bench too quickly.  The rookie is the energy of this front court, while Shaun is the same in the back.  Starting alongside Williams means you’ve got your two best ball handlers on the court for a majority of the game, and while Alan Anderson and Joe Johnson can handle the rock, that’s not what you want too often.   And as for Plumlee, this team isn’t deep at center, especially if you have to limit KG’s minutes.
  • Paul Pierce. Like KG, his postseason pedigree is a huge reason why he was traded for, and he’s shown he can still carry a team on his back.  If he gets established early, look  out.
  • And the biggest one? Rebounding. They’re a terrible rebounding team, but they still find ways to win.  Brooklyn has to try to limit Noah and Boozer from killing them too badly on the boards.  The Nets ability to force  turnovers will have to help counter act this.

There’s no reason this version of the Brooklyn Nets shouldn’t make it out of the first round.    The biggest problem last season was toughness.  Chicago manhandled every person that took the court for Brooklyn.  While this team is perceived as “old,” they’ve shown they’re not afraid of anyone.   They’ve looked better overall this season in that department, and should get past their division foes.  Falling back to 6 also means advancing on would mean a possible 2nd round date with the Miami Heat, who they were 4-0 against, as opposed to seeing Indiana, who they dropped all 4 against in the regular season.

So how far do you think the Nets go? Let your voice be heard and vote on the poll below.

With all that being said, here’s how I see the playoffs going from start to finish.

Eastern Conference Round 1                         Western Conference Round 1            

(1) Indiana  vs (8) Atlanta – Pacers in 5                      (1) San Antonio vs (8) Dallas – Spurs in 5

(2) Miami vs (7) Charlotte  – Heat in 5                           (2) Oklahoma City vs (7) Memphis – Thunder in 6

(3) Toronto vs (6) Brooklyn – Nets in 6                           (3) LA vs (6) Golden State – Clips in 6

(4) Chicago vs (5) Washington – Bulls in 6                (4) Houston vs (5) Portland – Rockets in 6

  • Toronto wasn’t supposed to be here, they were thought to be rebuilding.  Yet here they are, the 3 seed and Atlantic Division champs.  And Washington hadn’t been over .500 since 2009-2010, and started off the season just as bad as Brooklyn did. And out west, the Clippers and Warriors hate each other. Both can run, both have deadly shooters who can get hot quickly.  And don’t get me started on their point guards. But for second straight season, Golden State will be without their best post defender in Andrew Bogut, and I see the size of DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Glen Perkins just being too much for the Warriors to overcome.  Memphis is hot coming in, but the Spurs aren’t going down in round one, and neither with OKC.  Houston plays little defense, and Portland isn’t any better.  Give me Dwight Howard, Chandler Parson and James Harden any day over LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews.  Indy has been struggling, but the Hawks tried with all their might not to make it to the postseason, and I think the Pacers will make it look easy.  Charlotte might give Miami issues, but I don’t see much more than 1 win and a bunch of close losses.

Eastern Conference Round 2                        Western Conference Round 2

(1) Indiana vs (3) Chicago – Chicago in 7                  (1) San Antonio vs (4) Houston – Spurs in 6

(2) Miami vs (5) Brooklyn – Heat in 6                          (2) OKC vs (4) Clippers – Thunder in 6

  • I wanted to pick the Nets, and if they’d closed out on a higher note, I would have. But I they get past the 1st round and no more.  Miami will find a way to make the plays they didn’t down the stretch, especially with a healthy Wade on the floor.  The Pacers can’t score, but neither can the Bulls.  But Chicago’s defense is just better, and I think they find a way.  Out west it should be a lot of fun, but the Spurs are better defensively and I just think it’s the Thunder’s time.  LA and Chris Paul need a 2nd round appearance, but I think next year is a better year for the Clips to make it any further.

Eastern Conference Finals                    Western Conference Finals

(1) Miami vs (3) Chicago – Heat in 6                 (1) San Antonio vs (2) Oklahoma City – Thunder in 6

  • Chicago’s good luck runs out.  I can’t pick against Miami at home.  OKC match-ups up better than any of the other 28 teams in the league with San Antonio, and despite not holding home court, I see a rematch of the 2012 Finals.

NBA Finals  

(1) Oklahoma City vs (2) Miami – THUNDER WIN in 7

  •  I think it’s time for my 2013-14 MVP, Kevin Durant, to win his first ring, and I think he gets it.  The Heat might make a 4th straight finals, but they’re going to be tired.  The Westbrook injury was a blessing in disguise for OKC.  It means fresh legs, the bench will be ready to pick up the slack and the sidekick Durant was missing last season.  And if it should be Spurs in the finals, I say revenge for last season.  The West has been miles ahead of the East all year, and I think it means a championship for whatever team gets out.

So that’s it. Nothing left to do but sit back and watch a whole lot of really good basketball for the next month and a half. Oh the horror!

And here’s a not so shameless plug on my personal blog – stick with Sirius XM NBA Radio Channel 217 and on the Sirius XM App before and after games for great analysis and guests throughout the postseason and beyond.

Enjoy the run towards a ring everyone. May the best team win!

 

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NBA: Saying It’s Early is Getting Old for the 2013 Nets

Another week, another 1-2 record.  This team isn’t playing with consistent energy, and that’s the biggest problem.  That is until the end of the week when the injury bug struck.

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Game 7: @ Sacramento

This team had 3 days to get ready for this road trip, but they showed up looking tired.  In truth it was a lack of energy, something you can’t do any time, let alone early in the season.

Down 12 at the half, a poor start to the 3rd quarter meant that an early run in the 4th was little more than window dressing.  Because that run turned into a Kings run which led to the Nets 2nd blow out loss of the year.  Sacramento led by as many as 23 before this one was over. 

5 Nets finished if double-figures, but it’s hard to win when you shoot below 38%. There was way more ball movement for the Kings, who nearly doubled up the Nets assist total. Of course the poor shooting didn’t help that number. Brooklyn did a good job on the boards, but they had 15 turnovers to the Kings 6.  It was just a bad night all around to get the road trip started.

  • Brook Lopez led the way with 16 points, 9 boards tied with Paul Pierce and Deron Williams had 7 assists.

L Nets 86 – Kings 107

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Game 8: @ Phoenix

From the opening tip, there was much better energy for the Nets.  That was until Deron Williams crumpled to the ground just minutes in.  The oft-injured point guard came down hard on his left ankle, and stayed down for some time.  He hopped off to the locker room with some help, and the Suns took advantage.  You could see why Phoenix led the league in fast-break points.  Their guards have quick hands, force turnovers and they get back in transition quick.

But unlike the last few games, the Nets responded in the 2nd quarter to close a double-digit deficit to just 4 at the half.  Then, something unprecedented happened.  A 16-0 Brooklyn run to start the 3rd quarter.  Sure, following a timeout the Suns outscored them 17-10 the rest of the way, but that’s the type of energy and smart offense this team needs out of the break.  And it started and ended with Brook Lopez, who scored 10 of those 16 points.  Lopez had a bad 1st half, but rebounded in the 2nd half, and when the Nets big man is going well, this team usually excels.

It was a poor offensive 4th quarter capped off by a late Joe Johnson jumper that sent the game going to overtime.  Big shots are nothing new for the 2nd year Net, but the biggest came in overtime.  Tied 98-98, Johnson rebounded a Channing Frye miss, and took it in for a buzzer beating lay-up.

Williams never returned to the game, but luckily the MRI on his left ankle was negative. He’s day-to-day.

  • Brook Lopez was the leading scorer once again, putting up 27 points, while Kevin Garnett was a force on the glass, pulling down 14 rebounds.  Shaun Livingston came off the bench for Williams to dish out 6 assists to go with 18 points.

W Nets 100 – Suns 98 (OT)

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Game 9: @ Los Angeles

If there’s such a thing as a moral victory, this Saturday night 110-103 loss to the Clippers was that for the Nets. Brooklyn was without 80% of their starting lineup for their final stop on a 3-game west coast swing.  Brook Lopez and Deron Williams sat with ankle injuries.  Paul Pierce was out with a groin issue and Kevin Garnett was given the back-end of the back-to-back off.  So Joe Johnson, after 45 minutes in an OT win Friday, was the only healthy starter with the bench against a healthy LA team.  It started out well, but in the end, the Clippers playmakers did just that, they made plays.

Up 1 at the half, the Nets came out firing in the 3rd quarter for the 2nd straight night.  A 10-0 run out of the locker room led to a Clipper timeout.  And did that timeout work.  LA answered the Nets run with a 16-0 streak of their own, and Brooklyn could never really recover. 

But they kept it close until the end, and with just 1 starter, and with different guys playing big minutes, it was an impressive showing.  Shots that were falling early didn’t fall late, and they left points at the free throw line.  Many of those were left by lone rookie Mason Plumlee, who despite the misses, was a huge reason Brooklyn remained in it as long as they did.  The back-up big man wasn’t afraid to attack Blake Griffin down low.  It took a 30 point night from Griffin, and a 26 point effort from JJ Redick to beat the Nets bench, something that needs to be remembered. 

It was another loss, and you can’t be happy with a 3-6 start, but the energy, defense and ball movement from this one needs to transfer to practice and the starters need to feed off it when they return.  Again, a loss is a loss, but it might be a turning point loss.

  • Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee tied for team high honors with 19 points, a career high for the rookie.  Reggie Evans led the way with 11 boards in his first start of the season and Joe Johnson dished out a team high 6 assists.

 L Nets 103 – Clippers 110

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Week 4 of the season starts with Portland at home on Monday before two more on the road. Charlotte on Wednesday and Minnesota on Friday. The week wraps up back home on Sunday against Detroit.

Injuries or not, this team is being paid too much money, and has too much depth to be 3-6.  It is early, but that’s not a good excuse for a team with Championship aspirations.