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Nets open home-and-away series with Charlotte

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Hi! Welcome back, it’s been a minute. To catch us all up, the Nets wrapped their season series against the Suns on Sunday with a win and a 2-0 record against Phoenix. Not bad!

Sure Phoenix is one of the worst teams in the league, but two wins are two wins! The Nets now head into an important two-game stand against the Charlotte Hornets, home on Wednesday and away on Friday. The Hornets sit sixth in the East at 16-16 while the Nets are in ninth at 16-19. The 6-10 spots, made up in order by Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Brooklyn, and Orlando are all separated by just two games ... total. This is a really great opportunity for the Nets to gain some ground in their battle for the playoffs. Let’s get into it.

Where To Follow The Game

YES and WFAN have this one at 7:30 pm, ET. Also I’m writing this post as I watch Christmas Basketball, and poor Ryan Ruocco is stuck calling the Knicks/Bucks game on Christmas. I mean, good for him. That’s awesome and he’s a rising star in the announcing game and we love to see our own YES crew succeed on a national level, but it would be so much more fun if the Nets got to play on Christmas. I understand why the Knicks play (Gigantic media market and fan base and The Garden on Christmas) but like, they’ve done nothing basketball-wise to deserve a big game like that this entire century. Whatever. Go Ruocco.

Oh yeah, they lost.

Injuries

Caris Levert (foot) and Treveon Graham (hamstring) are still out. Allen Crabbe (knee) is also recovering while Dzanan Musa (shoulder) is going to take a little bit to get back to full action. Other teams are going to be so mad when they realize how good Dzanan is in addition to Rodions Kurucs. I literally cannot wait. That has nothing to do with his injury, just a general feeling I have.

The Hornets are healthy.

The Game

The Nets beat the Suns pretty handily, and there were some definite positives to take out of it regardless of the fact that the Nets beat a bad, tired team. The offense looked fluid, Joe Harris was knocking down shots yet again, Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell looked not only good individually but played well together, Jarrett Allen hit a three, and Rodions Kurucs stole all of our hearts once again.

I think my favorite thing about Kurucs is the fact that it’s so clear there are things he’s naturally going to get better at with time and maturity both physically and mentally.

He has a trouble finishing with contact which like, look at him. Kid’s skinny. You don’t have cheekbones like that without being at least a little lean. He also has trouble getting around screens, and his three-point shot needs some more confidence behind it. All things you might expect from a player about to turn 21. What you don’t usually expect is the natural feel for the game he possesses. Most of his buckets against Phoenix came from situations in which he knew exactly where to be and when. He finds his spots and delivers. His 16 and 10, his first career double-double, was a joy to watch and looked like a joy for him to accomplish.

For the record, as a starter —six games— Kurucs is averaging 11.2 point and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 50.9 percent overall, 41.2 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line ... 50/40/90, the Holy Grail of shooting.

The Hornets are an interesting team. They’re headed in every possible way by Kemba Walker, the emotional and basketball leader of their team. He’s having a career year averaging 24.8 points per game with 6.2 assists and 1.4 steals, while shooting an underwhelming 42 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. The percentages are a bit off because he’s their entire offense, so I don’t really blame him. The only other players averaging double digits are Jeremy Lamb at 14.9 and Malik Monk with 10.7 which tells you a bit about how much they rely on Kemba.

The Hornets are decent at defense, ranking 17th in Opponent Points Per Game at 110.8, one spot ahead of the Nets, but they’re quite bad at rebounding which is something Brooklyn might be able to take advantage of. This isn’t too surprising considering their big man rotation is made up of Cody Zeller, Willy Hernangomez, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Frank Kaminsky, and the ageless, timeless wonder Marvin Williams. Bismack Biyombo is on this team as well but he plays seven minutes a game and doesn’t seem poised to factor into this one too much. Anyway, none of those guys are real bruisers down low, and the high man rebounds-wise is Cody Zeller at 5.9 which I swear is a true thing. The Nets, for comparison, have both Ed Davis and Jarrett Allen averaging more than eight rebounds per game.

This matchup is going to be interesting as these two decent teams try to feel each other out to see how things might shake out playoff-wise. The Nets will probably struggle to contain Kemba, so defensively letting him get some shots off is fine as long as his outlets are cut off, especially on drives. He can’t score 100 points by himself, and shutting down guys like Lamb and Nicolas Batum is easier than stopping Kemba.

I think Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is going to be, and might already be, better than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Hyphens are extraordinarily similar players; hard nosed, defensive minded, lack of a jumper or soft touch. MKG is 25 and averaging 8.2 points in 19 minutes a game on decent 48 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent from three but on just 16 attempts.

The only thing Rondae is behind in is the percentages, which is important but not the only factor. It should be noted that Hollis-Jefferson is shooting 50 percent from three this month ... after shooting 15.4 percent in November.

Otherwise, Rondae fouls a lot less, attempts more free throws, and even grabs more steals. MKG is 25 and RHJ is 23 (until next week), and if I was drafting an expansion team, I’d take Rondae over Kidd-Gilchrist. The two are, however, hilariously similar, right down to their names. We’ll see how that match-up plays out over the next couple of games.

Player To Watch

Tony Parker is on this team! The 2013-14 Spurs that came back from a devastating Finals loss the year before to spank the Heat in LeBron James last year in Miami were one of my favorite basketball teams ever. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a comprehensively flawless and well oiled machine go to work like that. They won the 2014 Finals in 5 games against a great Heat team and Tony Parker played no small part in that. He actually led the team in scoring despite Kawhi receiving MVP. (Sean Marks got his second ring in that Finals. He was an assistant coach.)

The man is a legend, knows how to play really great basketball, and is having himself a decent little late career season as Kemba’s backup in Coach James Borrego’s new system. Every single Net and NBA player in general could learn something from watching Tony Parker and those early 2010’s Spurs teams.

From The Vault

Hope everyone who celebrated had a great Christmas! Now the real NBA season begins.

Enjoy.

For a different perspective, head on over to At the Hive, our Hornets sisters site on SB Nation.