Somebody is going to finish out of the running in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and a month ago nobody would have predicted it would have been the Brooklyn Nets.
They were playing too well at the time, they knew they were getting Caris LaVert back, and they had D’Angelo Russell coming off an appearance in the All-Star game.
Heck, these guys had a six-game winning streak in late January after they pummeled the Knicks on Jan. 25 — a night when Enes Kanter came into the Barclay’s Center and said his first choice was to remain in New York. Back then, a deal that would have kept Kanter in New York — albeit in a different borough — was something that was available to them if the Knicks were willing to trade with their crosstown rivals.
Kenneth Faried was gathering dust in Brooklyn back then, and Kanter was doing the same thing for the Knicks while irritating their front office with his constant comments about Turkish politics, his lack of playing time and the inherent unfairness of it all.
A Faried-for-Kanter trade would have ridded the Nets of an expiring contract and ridded the Knicks of someone who does not follow the company line of treating all media (except Berman of the Post) as mortal enemies. But instead, Nets general manager Sean Marks decided to waive Faried, and he was promptly picked up by the Houston Rockets, where he has become a mainstay in their rotation averaging 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds while starting 13 games.
The Nets enter tonight’s game in 6th place in the Eastern Conference as they wrap up a seven-game road trip, but they are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the 8th place Miami Heat and 2 1/2 games ahead of the Charlotte Hornets, both of which have been playing as though the games mean something — rare in the NBA when March Madness is in full swing.
One thing to watch for tonight is how the 76ers adjust defensively, because head coach Brett Brown lost his defensive guru, Billy Lange, who took the head coaching job at St. Joseph’s. Lange was the assistant who made in-game defensive adjustments, and it is unknown who will assume his role.
Brooklyn matches up well with Philadelphia, especially when playing D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie together.
The Nets defeated Philadelphia by 25 points on Dec. 4, lost on a buzzer-beater by Jimmy Butler on Nov. 25, then won at Philadelphia 127-125 on Dec. 12 as Dinwiddie scored a career-high 39.
The Nets have played 42 “clutch games” (defined as those in which the margin has been five points or
fewer during the final five minutes of a game), tied for the fourth-most in the league. The Nets are 23-
19 in clutch games, but 19-7 in their last 26 (since 12/7). The Nets have played a league-high 20 games that have been decided by three or fewer points (12-8).
Russell has averaged 34.0 ppg (.482 FG, .365 3FG), 5.0 rpg, 10.8 apg and 2.5 spg in 36.8 mpg in
his last four games. He’s the only player in franchise history with 136 points and 43 assists in a four-game stretch, and his 136 points are the most in a four-game stretch for a Net since Vince Carter’s 139 points in a four-game stretch in 2006-07 (2/21 – 2/27/07). Dinwiddie has averaged 27.3 ppg (.605 FG, .870 FT) and 6.0 apg in 27.2 mpg against Philadelphia this season, shooting 10-of-13 (.769) from distance.
The key offensive player for Philadelphia will be Joel Embiid, who likes to go outside but will need to play inside against Jarrett Allen to try to get the Nets’ starting center in foul trouble, forcing Brooklyn to turn to backup Ed Davis — a power forward who Kenny Atkinson utilizes as the backup center.
Kanter could have been performing that role for the Nets, but as mentioned above — he was a giveaway that Portland scooped up.
If the Nets can win tonight, look for Brett Brown to join Luke Walton atop the NBA coaching hot seat list. Many people around the Sixers believe Brown lost the locker room earlier this season when he brought in Bruce Bowen to give a pep talk and talk about the winning culture of the San Antonio Spurs — a pep talk that failed miserably.
Now that Brown has lost his defensive guru, his job is even more tenuous.
So it’s a big night for Brooklyn …. but a big night for Brown, too.