At the beginning of the season, the Brooklyn Nets were picked by many experts to win the Atlantic Division, and ultimately challenge the defending champions, the Miami Heat, for the Eastern Conference crown. To say that things did not go as expected would be a massive understatement. At the end of the 2013 calendar year, the Nets were 10-21 and coming off another embarrassing loss, this time to the San Antonio Spurs. Head Coach Jason Kidd was under fire from the media and fans, and in danger of losing his veteran locker room, but then… déjà vu. The Nets, like the season before, followed their lethargic performance against the Spurs with a thrilling victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder, thanks to the league’s most clutch player, statistically, Joe Johnson, who drained a game-winning buzzer beater. Since that debacle against the Spurs, the Nets are 34-14, beating the defending champions four times. (This is the first time in LeBron James’s career that he has lost to a team four times in the regular season.) The Nets have what they’ve lacked since Jason Kidd’s departure as a player: an identity. This team is a turnover-forcing, ball-moving, savvy veteran team that fears no opponent. The influence of off-season acquisitions, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, has transformed this team into a true playoff contender. The question that now arises is: “how far can this team actually go?”
The Nets are going to finish as the sixth seed in the East and face the Toronto Raptors in the first round. The season series between these two teams was evenly split at 2-2, and each of the games was extremely competitive. In fact, the third game was decided in the waning seconds, as Deron Williams failed to cleanly inbound the ball leading to the eventual game winner by Raptors forward Patrick Patterson. The key players in this series will be Kyle Lowry and Deron Williams. Lowry is capable of taking over any given game, and has turned the Raptors from a team trying to tank into the Atlantic Division champions. If Lowry gets it going, he, along with DeMar Derozan and Jonas Valanciunas, will make it a long series. On the other side, the Nets playoff run hinges on the play of Deron Williams. Williams has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the season, but has struggled with consistency. His number show that he isn’t the same “D-Will” from Utah, but he has been an integral part of this team. If he can attack the basket and give his teammates open looks off penetration, the Nets will awfully hard to guard given the number of offensive weapons they have. In the end, I do believe the Nets will beat the Raptors in six games, primarily due to the veteran leadership on the team. I can’t see Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, & Co. losing to the upstart Raptors. They’ll ride their veteran savvy to a first-round win.
The Nets’ potential second-round matchup will be the winner of the Miami Heat-Charlotte Bobcats series, which I assume will be the Heat. LeBron won’t allow his team to lose to the Bobcats in the first round — just won’t happen. The Nets have actually swept the Heat during the regular season, but the margin has been quite thin. They won three of the games by one point, and their fourth victory over the Bobcats was in double overtime. The Nets have been fortunate that Dwayne Wade has not been healthy for all but one of their games. Then again, when has Wade been healthy this season? If there is one team that could beat the Heat, it would be the Nets. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been two of the biggest thorns in LeBron’s side throughout his career, and now that they aren’t the primary options, they can defer to the younger players when they require rest. This series will, in my opinion, go to seven games, and that last game will be a game for the ages. However, I think the Heat’s lack of overall team consistency and health will be their downfall. There have been very few teams to go to four straight NBA finals. I think the mileage on LeBron’s and the rest of the Heat will finally show, leading to the Nets’ upset victory.
The other side of the bracket is up in the air, now that the Pacers’ are in complete free fall, but I don’t think it matters much in regards to the Nets. For a team that entered 2014 10-21, I’d say making the Conference Finals is quite an accomplishment. Brooklyn is alive and primed for run, and as a lifelong Nets fan, it’ll be fun to watch. My gut feeling is that if the Nets make it past the second round, they’ll win the East, but that just may my bias speaking. Still, after the horrendous start to the season this team had, I’ll just enjoy the ride.