Three Man Weave: Week 24 Edition
The Brooklyn Nets are in charge of their own playoff destiny, and nothing in the NBA seems to make sense anymore. Despite not winning more than three consecutive games all season long, the Nets strung together six straight in their 22nd and 23rd weeks of the season and surged to the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings. They’ll enter Monday’s makeup game against Portland with a half-game lead on the eighth-seeded Boston Celtics and a game-and-a-half over Indiana and Miami in the East’s ironic playoff race, but two-and-a-half behind the sixth-place Milwaukee Bucks with just six games left to play this season.
In their six-game streak, the Nets took advantage of two games against the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, but could also count victories over some either Eastern Conference playoff teams, or at least playoff hopefuls, in Charlotte, Cleveland, Indiana, and Toronto. Whereas two weeks ago the team was on the periphery of the playoff hunt, some great timing on Brooklyn’s behalf has put them just below the Bucks at the top of the East’s tier of “teams that probably shouldn’t make the playoffs because they’re under .500 but somebody’s gotta.” Of the six teams conceivably in the mix for the last three playoff seeds in the East, only Brooklyn has a positive record in its last 10 games - at 8-2 - and just Boston is at least at .500 in that timeframe.
The Nets still have to sweep the remaining six games to their schedule just to even up their record on the season, and might not yet be ready to break out of that tier and shake the stench of the Eastern Conference off of them, after Saturday’s lopsided loss to the Atlanta Hawks. With Hawks head coach (and de facto general manager) Mike Budenholzer aware of the draft pick implications of an Atlanta victory, the Hawks resembled their dominant, pre-All-Star break selves and won handily. Another, final meeting on Wednesday will present an obstacle to the Nets’ chances of finishing with a .500 record and sweeping those last six games of the season.
Brook Lopez continued to be a major contributor to another 3-1 Nets week, and picked up his second-consecutive Eastern Conference Player of the Week award. He again topped the 30-point mark Friday against the Raptors (with 17 rebounds in 44 minutes) by finding soft spots in the opposing defense with his flick shot off of the pick-and-roll, but Lopez was also content to let Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Thaddeus Young establish their own offense and share the scoring responsibilities in their three wins last week. Brook becomes the first Net in team history to be named Player of the Week in consecutive weeks, a week after winning for the first time in his six-year career, and the first NBA player this season to win in back-to-back weeks.
In this week’s Three Man Weave, and in the second-to-last week of the season, I’ll join two of our esteemed experts to answer three questions as to the Nets’ strong late-season push and their potential playoff opponents, the implications from the blowout loss to Atlanta, and Earl Clark’s contract extension and the impact upon (BK’s Finest favorite) Cory Jefferson.
Monday, vs. Portland, 7:00 pm
Wednesday, @ Atlanta, 7:30 pm
Friday, vs. Washington, 7:30 pm
Sunday, @ Milwaukee, 3:00 pm
1.) The Brooklyn Nets have had a nice run recently against some Eastern Conference playoff teams, at least until they traveled to Atlanta this past Saturday. It’s a one-game sample this late in the season and just the team’s first loss in their last seven games, but is there any cause for concern over the 32-point loss to the Hawks?
David Vertsberger: There was no reason to be surprised by the outcome, nor is there real cause for concern. If someone genuinely believed the Nets were good enough to beat the Hawks or Cavaliers but had their mind changed after that loss, they need to talk to somebody. Atlanta’s at another level. Brooklyn’s clinging to a postseason spot. Moving on…
Jonah Jordan: I don’t see any cause for concern. The Hawks are one of the top teams in the east and had some incentive to beat the Nets like they did. The Hawks have the ability to switch picks with the Nets in this year’s draft so they want them to finish the season as low as they can get. If the Nets had lost by 30 points to, like, the Bucks there would be cause for concern. Losing to the Hawks is kind of expected at this point in the season.
Paul Mitchell: I think the 32-point margin of victory speaks more to the Atlanta Hawks, and their ability to “flip the switch” and again resemble the team that won 19 straight games earlier in the season, than the Brooklyn Nets. We thought that Atlanta was on a different plane of basketball existence than the Nets and the rest of the Eastern Conference, and in a game with actual consequences (a draft pick swap, in this case), we were correct. The East should be scared again.
2.) Who should the Nets prefer to play in the first round: Atlanta or Cleveland?
Verts: No? Can I just say no? I’d say Cleveland because the Cavs’ defense is lagging behind Atlanta’s. The Nets will win playoff games by outscoring teams in barnburners, but they won’t get that chance against the Hawks.
Jordan: They aren’t going to beat either. In all likelihood, they’d going to get swept by both teams. The Hawks have an injury bug going around right now. If that sticks around come playoff time I’d say the Hawks. Maybe that would help them steal a game.
Mitchell: The Nets will be quite fortunate to take even a game or two in any first-round playoff series this spring, but the Cleveland Cavaliers might present their best opportunity at a potential
upset non-embarrassing performance. Any time a team’s best opportunity includes a scenario featuring LeBron James then the odds aren’t great to begin with, which just speaks to the level of dominance the Hawks have exhibited over the Nets so far this season, in winning three games by a combined 66 points. The Atlanta offense has already shown to be too free-flowing and complex for the Nets to hope to contain, so the only hope at this point might be matching up with the more isolation-heavy Cavaliers. Either way the playoff outlook is bleak.
3.) Since the Nets signed Earl Clark on March 27th, Cory Jefferson has played just 16 total minutes over two games (two against Cleveland and 14 in the blowout to Atlanta). Clark was signed to add depth in the wake of Thaddeus Young’s hyper-extended knee, but has he replaced Jefferson in Brooklyn’s big-man rotation? Does Clark’s new contract and team option in 2015-16 have any effect upon Jefferson’s potential role with the team next season?
Verts: How dare you besmirch the name of the plus-minus god, Cory Jefferson! Blasphemy! Heresy in the church of the second-round pick! Earl Clark’s definitely a better player than Jefferson is right now, if we’re being honest, but I don’t think that means Jefferson isn’t going to be on the roster next season. The Nets keeping Jefferson would be a low-risk, high-reward move, but then Billy King is prone to making the opposite kind of move.
Jordan: Poor Cory Jefferson can’t catch a break. His playing time has been up and down all season, then the Nets make a deal that definitely knocks him out of the rotation. It’s a tough blow. I’d be surprised if Jefferson is on the Nets next season. He’ll either be on a new team or in the DLeague. Maybe both.
Mitchell: Woah woah woah, these questions are not an endorsement or indictment of my views towards any particular player; to quote the sports radio hacks, “I’m just asking the questions!” And it’s all Billy King’s fault for introducing yet another veteran player to Lionel Hollins’s ADHD-riddled rotations. Earl Clark might be a better player than Cory Jefferson at this point in their respective career trajectories, as a combo forward who can stretch the floor a bit and not kill you on the boards, but Jefferson is a better big man with considerably higher upside. He’s all unbridled enthusiasm and uncoordinated athleticism in his limited minutes on the floor, which might not mesh with a head coach who is fighting to make the playoffs, although his role should be expected to increase after a full offseason in the Nets organization. Clark’s second-year team option is strictly a formality, as a non-guaranteed contract to be included in trades as a means to balance salary. There’s still plenty of room on the Cory Jefferson bandwagon.