Surely, when Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets' billionaire owner, opened the vault over the summer and gave his blessings for a nearly $200 million payroll, he figured he'd be getting more bang for his buck. However, the Nets have wallowed in mediocrity, stuck in a season-long funk that had kept them from topping the .500 plateau even once.
They never thought it would take this long to post their first winning record of the season, but they finally cleared that mental hurdle Wednesday night.
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Fueled by a 26-5 first-quarter lead, the Nets (30-29) tamed the Grizzlies, 103-94, at the Barclays Center, increasing their winning streak to four with a second consecutive victory over a likely playoff-bound team.
"It's been a long journey getting here,'' said Deron Williams, who had 16 points, seven assists and four steals. "It definitely feels good.''
Joe Johnson had 21 points and Marcus Thornton exploded for 20 off the bench, igniting the Nets with a 15-point second-quarter outburst that helped them lead 54-44 at the half.
Paul Pierce added 14 points and eight rebounds for the Nets, who improved to 20-8 since Jan. 1 with Kevin Garnett sitting out with back spasms for the third straight game.
"It's great,'' Pierce said. "It just shows we are growing, we are getting better. Like I said before, it's not always how you start, it's how you finish, and I think with the way we've been playing since the turn of the new year, this is the Nets team I envisioned from the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, it didn't start out that way.
"But the way we are playing now, I really like the way we move the ball. When we play unselfish, defend and rebound, we are a tough team to match up with anybody.''
In one of their best shooting displays of the season, the Nets were bombing away from all angles. They shot 51.4 percent overall and were unconscious from beyond the arc, making 15 of 26 (57.7 percent). Thornton was 4-for-5 from deep.
"I just tried to come in and be a spark to the first unit,'' Thornton said. "They played great in the first quarter, so I just tried to keep it going myself.''
Still, in typical fashion, the Nets allowed the Grizzlies to claw within 96-87 late in the fourth, forcing Jason Kidd to reinsert the starters. But a steal by Pierce led to Williams' fast-break layup, sparking a quick 5-0 burst that made it 101-87.
"I didn't want to go back in the game,'' Williams said. "I didn't think I was going to go back in. So yeah, it's frustrating. Up 27, there should be no reason the starters went back in.''
That kind of letdown is something they can't let happen in the postseason.
"I think we match up with anybody in the Eastern Conference from top to bottom,'' Pierce said. "We don't know what the seeding is going to be right now. It changes every week. But we feel like we have the necessary experience to move forward, no matter who we play.''