EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Were the season to end before the Nets faced the Charlotte Hornets at the Barclays Center Wednesday night, an eighth-seeded Brooklyn team would take on the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. A tall task to be sure, but highly preferable to the Hornets' fate, which would be sitting at home, knowing they were one win away from the postseason.
There are, of course, 24 regular-season basketball games left for the Nets (25-33) to play. But Wednesday night, with the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers also in action, seems to loom especially large for a Nets team intent on making the best of a bad conference.
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"It's a very important game," Joe Johnson said after practice Tuesday. "We were talking about that amongst ourselves as players. This game tonight is probably one of the most important games of the season."
At 25-34, the Pacers are very much within striking distance of an Eastern Conference playoff berth, and host the Knicks tonight. Meanwhile, the Heat, which sits in the seventh spot, hosts the Lakers.
Which means? "We got to worry about Charlotte," Deron Williams said. "They're playing really good basketball, they're right on our heels. Mo Williams came in and he's playing out of his mind. We got to be ready to play."
The Nets also have been playing really good basketball since the All-Star break, winning four of six and scoring over 100 points in all of those victories. They're doing it with a small lineup, and coach Lionel Hollins said that suits them just fine.
"We put all our small guys on the court, so we're a lot quicker," Hollins said. "We're not overmatched at every position. We're usually the aggressors and the attackers and teams are having to adjust to us. So that has helped tremendously. We're getting more loose balls. All of that is because of the guys we have on the court."
Part of that success, though, comes from the shifting landscape, Johnson said. It just so happens that the Nets' current style is trending in the league, and a big factor in the turnaround from their lethargic first few months.
"The game has changed so much that now aren't like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, those types," he said. "It's more stretch fours, setting pick-and-rolls, pop, you know, those type of guys who can handle the ball and make plays. That's kind of how the league is going, so it's kind of worked in our favor."
The timing couldn't be better. Part of the reason the Nets are still in this is because the bottom of the Eastern Conference is weak. "We did look a few times and it was crazy that we were right there," Brook Lopez said. "But we kept saying all year, 'We're going to figure it out, we're going to figure it out.' "
Now tonight, they'll have to prove if they finally have.