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POWER RANKINGS: Nets go into second half with high hopes ... tough schedule

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Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Nets sit in the six seed, an accomplishment in itself, but if they want to make the playoffs, they’re going to have deal with a tough road ahead. As many of the power ranking pundits note, they have the third toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. Luckily, the teams they’ll be battling for a post-season berth —the Hornets, Pistons, Heat and Magic— all face tough timelines as well.

The pundits have the Nets dead middle of the pack this week as Brooklyn prepares to resume play on Thursday at home vs. Portland. Lots of kudos for what they’ve done so far as well as some skepticism about whether they’ll make it.

John Schuhmann, (15)

The Nets have one of the league’s toughest remaining schedules, with 13 of their final 23 games against teams that currently have winning records. But their most important games are the six they play against the teams, all with losing records, that currently sit between 7th and 11th in the East. Four of those six, including two against the seventh-place Hornets, are in the next 11 days. Joe Harris’ victory in the MTN DEW 3-Point Contest shouldn’t have been a huge surprise, given that he went into the break shooting 17-for-26 from beyond the arc (including 7-for-8 off the dribble) over his last four games. The Nets allowed more than 118 points per 100 possessions over those same four games, even though two of the four were against the bottom-five offenses of the Bulls and Cavs.

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN (16)

It’s ironic that in a season the Nets finally own their first-round draft pick, they’re playing their way into the postseason -- but Brooklyn will gladly take a pick in the teens in exchange for the playoff berth. Even with the Nets’ recent slide, no team works harder, gets more out of its personnel and is better coached than Brooklyn. The gritty supporting cast has been a revelation, but the Nets’ postseason hopes will rest in large part on the play of D’Angelo Russell, who has led the team in scoring in each of the past nine games.

Khadrice Rollins, Sports Illustrated (15)

When Caris LeVert went down, D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie went over the top to turn this ship around and get the Nets headed toward the playoffs. Thanks to some stellar guard play and quality veteran leadership, Brooklyn is all set to become the sixth team in the East to essentially lock in playoff spot. But, they aren’t in the clear just yet.

A seven-game road trip in March could have the Nets pushed into the mix with the Hornets, Pistons, Heat and Magic if they don’t take care of business in these first few weeks coming out of the break. When a team has a chance like the Nets to really make the leap from lottery squad to perennial playoff team, it can leave the door open for anything bad to happen.

Ask last season’s Nuggets. Brooklyn had lost six of eight before escaping Cleveland with a triple-overtime win to head into All-Star Weekend and that needs to be the end of that stretch of play. Although that run of losing did include a near win in Toronto, that was only after a 19-point loss to the Bulls.

With everybody getting close to healthy for the Nets, the opportunity is there to solidify themselves as a playoff team with much more to come in the future. But they need to come out of the gates hot once games resume.

Zach Harper, The Athletic (14)

A couple weeks ago, it felt like the Brooklyn Nets were pretty much a lock for the playoffs. They had improved to 27-23 and they were really playing great basketball. Then they hit a bit of a skid, and had to sweat a triple-overtime game against Cleveland in order to stay above .500 this season. The Nets have tough games coming up right away, and actually have the third toughest schedule the rest of the way. Only Oklahoma City and Charlotte have tougher schedules ahead of them. The nice thing is Brooklyn has a bit of a cushion they’ve built up with a 2.5-game lead on both Detroit and Miami. They can afford a bad week and know the teams above them are unlikely to make up a ton of ground, based on how futile the back of the East has been most of this season.

As mentioned above, the Nets can also be pretty happy with knowing the Hornets have the second hardest schedule. So Charlotte making up ground on Brooklyn feels unlikely. One lineup I’d love to see them rely heavily on moving forward is some small ball that’s effective for them. When they play D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, Allen Crabbe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Jarrett Allen together, the Nets outscore their opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions. This lineup plays extremely fast and they defend well with their versatility. Nets have a tough road ahead but they can put themselves in a great position for survival.

With all that said, they now get to say they have the best shooter in the world.

Reid Forgrave, CBS Sports (15)

Sleeper pick here: Once Spencer Dinwiddie rejoins the lineup, a healthy Nets team separates itself from the bottom of the race for the final three playoff spots in the East and makes the playoffs comfortably. This is just a well-run franchise by Sean Marks with great coaching and a solid culture.

Tommy Beer, Yahoo! Sports (15)

D’Angelo Russell represented Brooklyn on Sunday night, as he was the first Net to participate in the All-Star game since Joe Johnson in 2013-14. Russell is also the second-youngest All-Star in franchise history, behind only Buck Williams. DAR closed out the first half of the season on fire, averaging: 28.5 points, 9.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 three-pointers in his final four games.

Brad Rowland, DIME Magazine (17)

It doesn’t make that much sense for Brooklyn to pass Detroit given their recent results. With that said, the Nets are just better than the Pistons. Sometimes, that is all you need to say.

And since it is the break, we thought we’d go back to preseason and find out where everyone thought the Nets would be. The consensus: somewhere in the mid- to upper-20’s. Here ya go.