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Thursday, April 17, 2014
For Nets, pressure is officially on

By Mike Mazzeo


It is hard to fathom that the Brooklyn Nets tanked four of their final five games to avoid facing the Chicago Bulls for a first-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors -- if only because it would be atypical of a $190 million team with championship aspirations to fear anyone.

Nevertheless if the Nets did indeed tank, they got exactly what they wanted. And if they can advance past the Raptors, a date with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat looms.

The Nets finished 4-0 against the Heat in the regular season. And it would be fitting for the two teams to guarantee themselves at least four more meetings in the playoffs.

The talk all season -- even in the turbulent times -- was that the Nets were built for the playoffs.

Well, it's playoff time now. The time for Brooklyn to prove itself and make owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who shelled out all that money, and Billy King, the general manger who assembled the roster, proud.

The pressure is officially on.

Nets/Raptors
The Raptors wanted the Nets and vice versa. Game 1 is Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
The Nets were eliminated by the Bulls in Game 7 on their home court last season. Brooklyn's lack of leadership was apparent, as was the fact that it never developed an identity.

But going into the 2013-14 playoffs, it appears that the Nets have all the necessary ingredients to make a deep run.

Adversity came early, but it made them stronger. The Lawrence Frank fiasco; Jason Kidd’s involvement in Sodagate; Brook Lopez’s season-ending injury; the slow starts of both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; all the blowouts; even the early injuries to both Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko.

The Nets were able to overcome them all. They were 10-21 when Kidd inserted Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup, moved Pierce to power forward and Garnett to center. That day was Jan. 2. And that same night they rallied back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and Joe Johnson beat the Thunder doing what he does best: hitting a game-winner at the buzzer.

The Nets went 34-17 the rest of the way. And they found themselves in the process.

Playing small-ball. Switching and creating turnovers on defense. Draining 3-pointers and exploiting mismatches on offense. That became their identity.

Kidd -- minus his tie, plus a beard -- looked more and more comfortable. Pierce and Garnett became leaders, making things easier on the rest of the team. They also flourished in their new roles. Williams rebounded after the All-Star break and has made the Nets a better team both offensively and defensively. Johnson was a model of consistency. Livingston emerged as the team’s unsung hero. They became a dominant team at Barclays Center, winning a franchise-record 15 consecutive games there. All season, they have been able to overcome injuries and rest their veterans because King made sure to add depth.

But by the end of the regular season, it appeared their starters had checked out mentally, as if their thoughts were on the postseason. It is why they were all brought together, after all. Not to win an Atlantic Division championship, but an NBA title.

No one is installing the Nets as favorites to win it all. But given their regular-season dominance against the Heat and how poorly the Indiana Pacers played down the stretch, would it surprise you? Then again, would it surprise you if the Nets got ousted by the Raptors in the first round?

This is going to be a tough series. The Raptors are an excellent team. Williams and Co. are going to have their hands full with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas.

Terrence Ross said recently that he would prefer Brooklyn in the first round. And based on the way the Nets played in their final five games, it appears they preferred the Raptors just the same.

The Nets are healthy. And with the New York Knicks out, they are the city’s lone representative in the playoffs.

The time is now for this $190 million team -- the most expensive team in NBA history -- to prove itself and do what last season’s team could not do: make a deep playoff run.

The pressure is officially on.