For 17 games, the Nets were on an incredible roll, going 13-4 over basically one-fifth of the NBA schedule to put themselves in playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Their 21-23 record is good for seventh place in the weaker Eastern Conference, but it figures to be a six-team fight between the Nets and the Heat, Hornets, Pistons, Magic and Wizards for the final three of eight playoff berths.
The Nets are in the midst of a tough stretch of schedule with a home game against the title-contending Celtics on Monday at Barclays Center followed by road games against the super-hot Rockets in Houston and the Magic. But of the 15 games left before the All-Star break in February, only seven are against teams currently in playoff position.
To be a playoff team, the Nets must make a big move before the All-Star break. Coming out of the break, 17 of their final 23 games are against teams that currently are in playoff position, including the last nine games of the season.
“If you say you’re going to be a playoff team, we have to beat playoff teams,” forward Ed Davis said. “It’s easy to beat the Hawks and Knicks and teams like that, but you really see where you’re at when you play Toronto, Boston, at Houston, at Orlando, games like that. You really see where you’re at. Get back to me around this time next week and I’ll have a better idea where we’re at.”
Early in the season, the Nets went into a 2-10 swoon after Caris LeVert suffered a catastrophic ankle dislocation, but they recovered because of improved depth and the veteran leadership of players such as Davis, Jared Dudley and Shabazz Napier in addition to holdover DeMarre Carroll.
The surprise emergence of second-round draft pick Rodions Kurucs as the starting small forward also has lifted the Nets because it allows coach Kenny Atkinson to use a skilled and experienced second unit that includes Spencer Dinwiddie, Davis, Napier and Carroll.
“I think Ed and DeMarre and those guys off the bench, they’ve really kind of saved us more than a few times this year where we got off to a bad start and they come in and all of a sudden they kind of crack the whip,” Atkinson said.
“In the past, we’d have a rookie, a guy that really had no NBA experience. Now we’ve got guys that have experience in the league, pretty good players. You’ve got to have balance. Those guys have been huge.”
LeVert’s injury was a major setback because he was emerging as a true star, a go-to guy who could finish at the end. There is no specific timetable for his return, but he is expected to be available after the All-Star break.
LeVert’s loss has been compounded by injuries to three-point specialist Allen Crabbe, defensive stalwart Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dudley, whose value as a voice on the floor far exceeds his stats.
When Hollis-Jefferson went down with a groin strain, Dudley went back into the starting lineup. But when Dudley strained a hamstring, Atkinson had to insert Treveon Graham into the starting lineup at a time when he was coming off a hamstring injury and shooting poorly.
Atkinson credited the Nets’ upward trend to lineup stability after the players adjusted to their roles following the LeVert injury. But the latest injuries to Hollis-Jefferson and Dudley have caused more turmoil.
“That obviously is kind of the elephant in the room, the injuries we’ve had to deal with,” Dinwiddie said. “We’re trying once again to figure out our identity. But we’re going to figure it out. We’ve got a resilient group.
“We’ve figured it out at every step and every stage. The high caliber of opponent [coming up] is going to make that learning curve need to be sped up a little bit, but it’s something I believe that we’re all ready to do and capable of doing with the talent in this locker room.”
Davis also lamented the disruption caused by numerous injuries. “You’ve got groups that you know play well together,” he said. “For us, we were playing well together with J.D. in the lineup, and with Rondae going out and T.G. having to start, it’s different.
“It’s a long season. That’s why they pay Kenny. He has to figure the lineups out and we’ve just got to do our job.”
The Nets and Atkinson have shown they can adjust to adversity, and they are better equipped than ever with such a deep roster of skilled veterans. If the Nets ever get healthy, watch out.
“I keep saying we’ve made strides, but we have a long way to go,” Atkinson said. “We’re humble enough to understand that. We’re fighting every game. We’ve had some good wins against some really good teams. We have to continue to do that if we want to achieve something really important.”