After stumble, Nets find their footing
NEW YORK -- The Brooklyn Nets have not technically reached the midpoint of their schedule yet but their season already has quite a humbling and disorienting arc.
Last week when the Nets made a stop in London, owner Mikhail Prokhorov gave a midseason address and there was no missing his mood adjustment. Famous for his brashness as much as his spending, Prokhorov was no longer peddling the "aiming for amazing" line he crafted ahead of the team's season-opener back in November.
This time Prokhorov was saying "I'm realistic" and "we need to wait" on the development of the team and coach Jason Kidd. The Nets had a 10-21 start that featured scattered effort, widespread injury problems and high-profile infighting on their coaching staff.
But that's the thing about the NBA season: Its length and demands are forever reminding its participants just how malleable everything can be. With their sights recalibrated after 30 games of disappointment, the Nets actually are working their way right back into position and could end up being right where they had "aimed" to be.
After a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee 103-80 drubbing of the New York Knicks, the Nets have won seven of their past eight games. During that span, they've moved from 13th in the Eastern Conference to seventh. With the Toronto Raptors' recent slide, the Nets are now just two games back in the loss column from the lead in the Atlantic Division and the top four seed it promises.
Their sub-.500 record is a significant letdown, but getting a possible home-court advantage in the first round and later letting their depth and experience match up with the East favorites in a series was always the goal. After all kinds of misery, that is still sitting right in front of them.
No, this is not "amazing" but it is pretty far from the depths of where the team was six weeks ago when Brooklyn was racking up double-digit losses at an alarming rate. There was a week when both Kidd and the Nets front office appeared to be back-channel challenging each other through leaked media reports and everyone's job appeared to be on the line.
More importantly, how the Nets have turned things around appears to demonstrate the hallmarks of sustainability. It's dangerous to assume anything will continue, another of the lessons a marathon season teaches. The Knicks, as Exhibit A, were sailing on a five-game win streak recently only to have four consecutive double-figure losses now hammer their reality.
Primarily, though, the Nets appear to be putting down some roots at defensive end and that historically implies this streak might actually create some real traction.
Over these past eight games the Nets are giving up 92 points a game after they allowed about 102 per game over the first 30 games of the season. Per 100 possessions, the benchmark that standardizes such statistics, the Nets are giving up seven fewer points during this streak than they did in those first two months.
Their opponents are shooting about 42 percent in this stretch after hitting at 46 percent before. On Monday, the Knicks shot just 34 percent. Some of this is the result of improved effort as the aging team has started to dig in. Some of it is because of scheme, as a new smaller lineup has opened up some X-and-O strategies that have proved effective.
These are the sort of habits that can create turnarounds and the veterans that line the Nets' locker room know it.
"We're starting to build something defensively and when you can do that it's beautiful," Nets forward Paul Pierce said. "Even more so than offensively because it creates trust ... We're putting games together, we're putting quarters together. It's not just one quarter or two quarters, we're starting to be more consistent."
The Nets have been hot offensively, too. Especially Joe Johnson, who had another great game against the Knicks with 25 points on just 15 shots. They are moving the ball beautifully in their new small lineup with Pierce playing at power forward.
In an unexpected way, losing center Brook Lopez for the season because of a broken foot forced the lineup change that is now clicking. It eliminated a whole section of the playbook that had post-up plays set for Lopez that stalled the ball at times. Now the Nets resemble the way the Knicks, led by Kidd's own play at the time, used to whip the ball around the perimeter when they were a 50-win team last season.
That's another one of those long-term lessons -- even events like season-ending injuries that can appear devastating can end up having the effect of a forest fire clearing the way for new growth. It wasn't just the Lopez injury, there was a time when Kidd was completely lost and his players took on that persona. Now, there seems to be some team-wide steadiness from the coach downward.
"Jason has done a great job of turning it around and getting us to understand what he wants," Nets forward Kevin Garnett said. "He's embedded in our minds what he wants ... mostly we've been communicating and not guessing."
While he was certainly on a high from the victory and the recent streak and that may have zapped his perspective, Garnett said the turnaround the Nets are manufacturing is the biggest in-season swing in his 19-year career.
Which brings back the entire point, the NBA season is such a grind that flying high and lying low are both fragile states. This could easily go another way again, especially with Deron Williams' unending issues with his ankles at the top of the worrisome list.
At the start of the season the Nets expected to be that third contender after the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. That expectation has dimmed to just smelling the opportunity that is still there. Either way, though, none of the Nets' goals are truly out of reach yet and that is saying something after where they stood just a few weeks ago.
"We know and understand where we've come from," Johnson said. "We know how it can turn and go back. We're enjoying paying attention to detail and trying to be successful."