The Brooklyn Nets are a group of marked men.
Along with their new look has come lowered expectations and a target from teams trying to cruise through the first round of the playoffs, namely the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Multiple people I’ve spoken to recently are privately hoping for a Brooklyn matchup,” reports Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com noting. “It’s easy to understand why. Even though the Cavs, with home-court advantage, would likely be capable of competing — and possibly winning — a seven-game series against any of the teams currently behind them in the standings, the Nets would be Cleveland’s easiest path out of round one.”
Brooklyn was once seen as a title favorite earlier this season but their fall to potential first-round fodder is not unfounded. Losing a pair of players the caliber of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is almost impossible to overcome.
Without them, the Nets have focused on their defense to keep them in games.
“While the Nets haven’t completely imploded since those two megadeals, their organizational ceiling has lowered considerably, and they no longer pose the same challenge in a seven-game series,” explains Fedor. “The Nets are 7-11 over the last month-plus without those two superstars. They also have the most inexperienced coach of the potential first-round foes.”
All of this amounts to a bullseye for the Cavaliers, but almost surely for the teams sitting in the Play-In Tournament given the Nets’ two-game slide. They are just 1.5 games ahead of the seven-seed and have one more matchup versus the Miami Heat who currently occupy the slot.
Interestingly enough, the Nets are 1-0 versus the Cavs this season with two more matchups to go and that one victory coming with Durant and Irving scoring 32 points apiece.
Jacque Vaughn’s Challenge to Nets
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn spoke on adding another challenge ramping up his starter’s minutes down the stretch in preparation for playoff basketball.
“That’s what playoff basketball is about,’’ Vaughn said via the YES Network’s YouTube channel on March 14. “You’re going to have to play every other day, and you’re going to play high minutes. Can you get a win? Can you respond the next day? So prepping that a little bit…was kind of my psychological way of looking at it. We just didn’t get it done…So we should have some juice to play.”
Not only will this help the Nets get their playoff legs, but they can also iron out the kinks.
“Once we kind of iron out those instances where you’re reacting a quarter of a second later, I think our defense will be a lot sharper,” Cameron Johnson said via the team’s YouTube channel after a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on February 26. Once that becomes instinct, once we’re planning on that there’s a couple rotations that I know personally over the last five games that I’ve missed just because I’m kind of caught in the middle ground where my mind is reverting back to old habits. But I think it’s getting better.”
There are just 12 games left before the playoffs begin leaving but so much time for the new-look group to jell.
Ben Simmons Full Recovery An Ideal Outcome for Nets
The one key piece of the puzzle that Vaughn has not been able to figure out is Ben Simmons, the 26-year-old two-time All-Defensive standout who also has three All-Star appearances and a steals title to his credit.
Healthy, he would fit perfectly into the Nets’ defense-first mantra and add another playmaker.
But Simmons has been out since the All-Star break and, despite progressing to on-court work, per Vaughn, he remains without a timetable for his return to action.
With his value diminished as low as it is, their best hope is to rebuild his value when he returns to the court. But the challenges of finding a role for him won’t go away if he isn’t healthy enough to fill in the gaps Vaughn finds in his minutes.
“It’s going to be some work that we have to do,” said Vaughn via the team’s channel on February 13. “You just take a look at what the lineups could potentially look like. You put a big next to Ben, then you got to figure out what the spacing is around him. Then if you put a playmaker next to him, then you got to figure out what Ben looks like without the basketball. Then if you go small with Ben, then you got to figure out, can you rebound enough with him…You see the challenges that lie ahead”
Fortunately for Simmons and the Nets, Vaughn said he is committed to figuring it out.