The East is getting tighter.
With Miami losing again (to the Knicks no less), they’ve lost three straight. The top three seeds in the East now all have 27 losses. Meanwhile, the Celtics are fourth with 28. Go a little deeper and you see that seeds 5 through 7 are also only separated by one loss.
And the eighth place Nets have Kyrie Irving back full-time and are hopeful Ben Simmons will soon follow. They cannot be dismissed.
The Philadelphia 76ers decided to learn that lesson the hard way on March 10 in their loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Philly fans were all excited about booing Simmons that they forgot the Nets still had Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In that game, the Nets dominated, 129-100, with Durant and Irving giving no quarter.
With the playoffs rapidly approaching and teams still trying to put themselves in the best seed possible to make a championship run, things are about to get more interesting. Yes, Brooklyn has to accept the fact that they will be a lower seed heading into the playoffs. And yes, Brooklyn does remember they were the first seed in the Eastern Conference before one of their stars, Kevin Durant, got injured. This helps because he happens to be one of the best and if not the best player in the world at the moment. We’re still waiting for someone who can prove otherwise.
Meanwhile, the basketball and city gods have decided to shine on the Nets with the Mayor’s decision to change the private sector mandate and let Irving play in all nine games.
With ALL that being said, the Nets should try playing the current top seed Miami Heat in the first round. Through their acquisition of Simmons, who still hasn’t played yet, the Nets got one of the best defensive players in the NBA, probably the best perimeter defender in the league. At 6’11”, he can — and does — defend 1 through 5.
Assuming he gets healthy by April 15, Simmons could provide the necessary defense on Bam Adebayo who has already proven how annoying he can be to Brooklyn’s defense. In three games this season, he’s averaged 24.3 points a game, shooting 57.1 percent and grabbing 12.3 rebounds. In the Nets loss to the Heat on March 3, he ran all over Brooklyn, shooting 12-of-15.
Adebayo may be too versatile and quick for Andre Drummond, but if Simmons is available, you can see how Steve Nash would be tempted to run him at Adebayo along with Nic Claxton to limit Adebayo’s production. The Nets will hopefully have the luxury of sending both players and at the Heat star. That is the value of Simmons on D, versatility.
There are certainly other stars on Miami that need to be contained: former NBA champion Kyle Lowry (who turned 36 yesterday), Jimmy Butler and the Heat’s two young snipers, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. But it’s Adebayo has been the Nets nemesis.
With two versatile 6’11” bigs, both of whom are 1-through-5 defenders, Nash and his staff can keep the pressure on and use Simmons and Claxton in a switching scheme that should be able to confuse the Heat’s perimeter threats. Or they can share the job.
The next focal point would be slowing down Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Robinson is a catch and shooter who does not stop moving offensively off the ball. Figuring out his routes to get open will be key (Saturday as well as in a playoff match-up). As for Herro, a defensive presence on the perimeter by one of the bigs and some on-ball pressure could be enough. That’s what Bruce Brown is for.
There are other issues that could warrant some excitement about playing Miami. The Heat have lost five of their last eight and on Wednesday the losses appeared to get to Miamians. As the Miami Herald reported.
To recap: During a third-quarter timeout Wednesday, Butler said something to anger coach Erik Spoelstra and Haslem chirped back. Tempers flared and teammates had to separate the two forwards before anything escalated.
The Heat played it down and Butler played well through the rest of the contest but they lost to Golden State. In fact, Goran Dragic said Friday, “That’s normal. I was here seven years. That’s how we operated here.”
As a veteran team that went to the Finals in the “bubble,” the Heat should get back to normal soon. Still, they are a volatile crew as the incident showed. The Nets, despite all their frustrations this season, never resorted to that kind of behavior. It is something to watch.
In addition, even with Erik Spoelstra’s elite defensive schemes, no matter what he comes up with won’t be enough. No team in the NBA has an answer for Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving in the half court set. In the three games so far the season, all losses for the Nets, Miami did not have to face the two superstars at the same time. Durant played in two without Irving. Irving played only one and that was without KD. Saturday night will be the first time the “Big Two” will be on the court together vs. Miami.
With the two playing together, it should make the spacing unstoppable and it should open up opportunities for shooters like Patty Mills, Goran Dragic and Seth Curry (Yes, somehow Seth Curry was added to this trade.). Just imagine if Joe Harris was back, prayers up to him for a speedy recovery by the way.
All of this of course depends on the Nets getting past the play-in tournament. They can help themselves Saturday with a win ... and hurt the Heat. They could fall out of first with a loss and the Nets would get closer to the seventh seed. A 2/7 series between the Nets and Heat would be on tap with Game 1 in Miami April 16.