Playing with house money could yield surprising dividends for the Nets.
A year ago there was a playoff team in the Eastern Conference that appeared as if they didn’t belong with a losing record of 38-44. That team was coincidentally the 8th seeded Atlanta Hawks, who took the top seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games. Could the 8th seeded Brooklyn Nets find a way to make what is expected to be a quick slaughtering into a competitive fight? Perhaps.
They’ve been criticized and mocked by many. With 38 wins and how they backed into the Eastern Conference’s final seed, the Brooklyn Nets head into their first round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks without inspiring confidence to even make it a competitive series. The odds are heavily against them, but unlikely does not mean impossible.
Here’s my case for why the Nets can represent the borough of Brooklyn favorably:
The Quintessential Team With A Few Missing Ingredients?
There’s no denying that the Hawks had a magical regular season, which saw them win 60 games and rank amongst the top tier of teams in both offensive and defensive rankings. The way they play the game is a thing of beauty – crisp ball movement, outstanding three-point shooting, and a "team first" mentality. In a way, they kind of resemble the 2001-02 New Jersey Nets (who actually struggled against an 8 seed in the opening round), which also didn’t depend heavily on one particular scorer. In case you were wondering, the top scorer on the Hawks is Paul Millsap at 16.7 ppg.
The Hawks are reliant on the three-point shot as only six teams averaged more attempts per game then them during the regular season. Only one other team converted at a higher percentage on those attempts. What happens if playoff jitters affect the accuracy of some of their shooting or the Nets are able to defend the outside more effectively? Who’s the one player they can turn to for easy buckets and to shoulder the scoring load?
Atlanta may be incredibly unselfish (2nd in assists per game) but did you know that they rank towards the bottom of the league in rebounding? In fact they were statistically the 3rd lowest rebounding team and worst in terms of offensive rebounding. Perhaps much of that is due to their effective shooting, but what if those shots aren’t falling?
Dismiss The Skewed Season Series
To say that the Hawks made mincemeat out of the Nets during the first three regular season meetings would be putting it mildly. In the first three contests, the Hawks won by an average margin of 22 points.
Why dismiss these results you say? The Nets now are a different team, in terms of the roster, than the team that got blown out in the first two meetings. Heck, the starting lineup in one of those games was Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Mason Plumlee. Only one of those players is still a member of the first unit.
Yes, the Nets got humiliated in Atlanta as recent as April 4th with their current starting lineup, but keep in mind that they were coming off a grueling, emotional victory the previous night against Toronto in which Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Joe Johnson all played heavy minutes. As we have all grown accustomed to over the years, the Nets appeared fatigued, overmatched, and at some point simply decided to let go of the rope. After all, old habits die hard with this group.
The final meeting on April 8th offers the most hope, even though the end result was a three-point loss. Moral victories don’t count in the win column; however, the Nets proved that night that they are capable of going toe-to-toe with the East’s elite as they erased a second half, double-digit deficit and actually held the lead in the closing minutes before coming up short in the final seconds.
Jekyll and Hyde
For three years now Brooklyn has proclaimed that they are unsure what their identity is as they have failed to sustain any semblance of consistency throughout the course of a season. If anything, you can classify them as a bunch of underachievers considering some the talent on their roster and their respective career resumes.
The supporting pieces and leadership may have changed over the years but the one aspect that has remained constant is the core of Williams, Lopez, and Johnson. Did you know that the Nets have a combined 55-35 record over the past three seasons following the All-Star Game? Maybe they are just slow out of the gate.
This year the Nets compiled a 17-13 record following the break in the regular season, which included an inexplicable four-game home losing streak as well as the recent clunkers against Milwaukee and Chicago.
Even with the letdowns, Brooklyn did post some impressive wins during that stretch especially against Golden State, Dallas, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, and Milwaukee. Not to mention they did defeat the Clippers and the Spurs earlier in the year as well. Victories such as these show that the Nets are capable of competing against some of the league’s best on any given night.
For all of the times the Nets appeared to turn the corner this season, they ended up going the wrong way of a one-way street. With an 82-game sample size the Nets have proven that they simply cannot maintain an element of consistency, as they are quick to throw in the towel or regress on too many occasions. It’s precisely why their point differential for the season looks so horrendous.
Can the team playing with house money with absolutely no pressure put together four quality efforts? They don’t need Williams and Johnson to be flawless 100% of the time in this series, just 57% (4 out of 7) of the time.
Would it surprise you to see the Nets get their doors blown off in one or more of these games against Atlanta? At the end of the day, it’s all about wins. If in one game they lose by 35 but win the next by 3, who cares if they’ve been outscored collectively by 32 points?
Upsets Do Happen
When you least expect them, upsets do happen in sports by some of the bigger underdogs: the 1969 New York Jets, Buster Douglas, and the 1980 USA men’s hockey team (which Russia annihilated in an exhibition weeks prior) just to name a few. Did anyone ever think these upsets would happen?
Now I know what you are thinking, those were single victories by a lesser team and it’s much harder to beat a superior opponent multiple times over an extended series. This is true, but there have been instances in which the top seeded team either struggled with or was defeated by the lowest seeded team.
Do you recall the 1994 Seattle Supersonics? You know, the team that accumulated 63 regular season victories and went to the Western Conference Finals the year before. If you do, then you must remember the 8th seeded Denver Nuggets shocking them in the decisive Game 5.
How about the Dallas Mavericks who won 67 games during the 2006-07 regular season? The same core that lost in the NBA Finals the previous year seemed unstoppable until Golden State knocked them off in six games.
Then there was the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs who were upstaged in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs against the 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies, coached by none other than Lionel Hollins.
Just like these other teams, the Hawks steamrolled through the regular season in route to 60 wins. What makes them different is that this group has never accomplished any postseason success together, unless you consider last year’s seven game series with top seeded Indiana a grand achievement.
With this lack of experience are the Hawks vulnerable? Is there added pressure by facing such a meek looking opponent with nothing to lose? What if they drop a home game early in the series? What if they have no answer defensively against Brook Lopez who can potentially dictate the pace of the game in the Nets’ favor?
Nets Nation or Zombie Nation?
Countless times this season the Nets were left for dead by fans and the media. When things appeared bleakest, better play and good fortunes seemed to break their way.
Although the regular season was hardly a success, the postseason offers a fresh start. With the harsh criticism from their former teammate, Paul Pierce, some of the Brooklyn veterans will have a chance to show their pride on the court and prove their doubters wrong.
The Nets are perceived by many to be weak and heartless, and much of that seems to come from the uninspired play from their two highest paid players. The truth is there are others on the squad (specifically Bojan Bogdanovic, Jack, Anderson, and Young) that won’t be intimidated by the threat the Hawks pose, especially without that transcendent star.
Watching the Nets this season has been downright scary at times, somewhat like a horror show. Each time they have been left for dead, they have somehow resurfaced and defeated a foe they seemed as if they had no right beating.
Am I guaranteeing a first round upset? Not exactly. After watching this group of zombies for an entire season I have finally learned not to count them out. For that reason alone, I do believe the Nets can strike a little fear into the Hawks while making the fans of Brooklyn proud of their overmatched team.
Allen Robertson is tired of all the negativity and as we approach the time of reckoning, he argues that the Nets could surprise a lot people, including their fans, starting this afternoon.
Playing with house money could yield surprising dividends for the Nets.