Don’t tell the Nets you’re surprised to see them in the playoff field. Don’t tell them they’re surpassing expectations (even if they are), and certainly don’t use a pessimistic tone when asking them about their recent losses. “Oh, you’re looking for negative answers?” D’Angelo Russell retorted to the media after the Nets dropped a mid-March game against the Clippers. Russell refused to give any, despite that game—and loss—being an important one. Right now, every game is.
Brooklyn is on the precipice of making the playoffs for the first time since 2015. For a franchise that so infamously shattered its future via the lopsided 2013 trade for aging veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (with three first-round picks, plus a pick swap going the Celtics’ way), that is no small feat. But while the Nets have been the darlings of the NBA this season—the D’Angelo Russell renaissance being a chief reason—to complete the arc they still have to actually, you know, make the playoffs. And that would be no small feat, either.
With just more than a week left in the season, the Nets are staring down the barrel of a tight race for the last three spots in the East. Brooklyn currently holds the seventh seed by only a half game over the Heat, and a full game over the Magic. Here’s where things get interesting: The Nets have five games left. Two of those games come against the Bucks (one home, one away), one against the Raptors (home), another against the Pacers (away), and the season finale at home against the Heat, who currently hold the eighth seed.
There will be no breaks in this sprint unless the Bucks decide to rest some starters like they did Sunday against the Hawks. Even without Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, though, Milwaukee has a tough, deep bench that could give the Nets some trouble.
So the BKN/MIA/ORL trio for the last 2 spots breaks down pretty evenly to each team missing the playoffs in about 1/3 of the simulations.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 1, 2019
Buckle up. https://t.co/ntptNesvHy
The numbers don’t favor Brooklyn’s chances. The Nets are the only team currently in the playoff picture with a negative point differential (-0.3), and over their past eight games their offensive rating has ranked 23rd in the league. Of note: They have a 3-5 record in those games. The Magic, meanwhile, have a positive net rating, and both they and the Heat are 7-3 over their past 10 games.
Russell’s post-All-Star surge (he’s averaging 23 points and eight assists a game since the break) has been a godsend for the Nets in the wake of injuries to Caris LeVert (a dislocated foot kept him out for nearly three months) and Spencer Dinwiddie (who had thumb surgery that kept him out for 14 games). Russell’s leap this season has not only been timely but telling—he’s seemingly set out to prove that everything that was said and thought about him while he was a Laker was wrong. He’s been an effective scorer in his own right, but has also showed playmaking prowess, which has been a boon for the team overall. In games in which he’s dished out 10 or more assists this season, the Nets are 10-3. To wit: All three of the Nets’ most recent wins have come with a double-digit-assist game from Russell.
Of course, for Russell to get those assists his teammates have to make shots, which hasn’t been the case over Brooklyn’s past 10 games. During that span, the Nets have shot 35 percent from 3 and 43.4 percent from the field, which is 27th in the league. Both Dinwiddie and LeVert have struggled since returning from their respective injuries: Dinwiddie is shooting below 40 percent from the field and below 30 percent from 3, and LeVert in particular has looked off—in 21 games since his return, he has shot 36.5 percent from the field and 26.4 percent from deep, and the Nets have had a better offensive rating when he’s off the floor.
Even with all that statistical noise, though, it’s hard to believe the Nets won’t make the playoffs. They’ve been on such a high for most of the season, and with Russell’s recent surge, it would feel shocking if all of that progress doesn’t end with a postseason berth. Plus, their absence wouldn’t just be a disappointing end for them; the Nets play a style of basketball that is, to put it simply, fun as hell. Watching them go up against the Raptors, Sixers, or Bucks in the first round would be a treat and an exercise in discovering whether a team playing at lighting pace could give a more talented squad some trouble. (Basically: If we can’t get the Kings in the playoffs, at least give us the Nets.) Brooklyn’s rebuild could be on the edge of getting some much-needed validation. But first Russell and Co. have to go out and finish the job.