Less than a week ago, I wondered whether the Nets would make the playoffs. Amid the clustered mess that was the bottom of the East’s playoff race, Brooklyn’s path looked to be littered with sand traps, while its competitors had relatively easy schedules on the way to the finish. Of course, the Nets weren’t just discounted in the final stretch; they were discounted when they had a 9-18 start; they were discounted before the season began. It was just four years ago that Brooklyn was the laughingstock of the league, a franchise seemingly ruined by a lopsided trade that sent a bajillion first-round picks to the Celtics in exchange for a couple of aging superstars. If they could get through that, what was winning a few more of their last six games?
The Nets lost to the Bucks on April 1, then to the Raptors two days later. But the Nets won their next matchup with the Bucks by five and grabbed a 108-96 win over the Pacers on Sunday. Those wins, along with some losses from other teams across the conference, put the Nets over the top. It’s official: Brooklyn is going to the playoffs.
The Nets’ journey back to relevance shouldn’t have happened this quickly. That infamous trade left the franchise with a near-impossible puzzle to solve. But when Sean Marks was hired as general manager in February of 2016 he began changing the franchise’s culture, making smart moves (like utilizing restricted free agency to their advantage) and collecting assets. Just two years ago, the Nets won a league-worst 20 games, and the franchise hasn’t had a lottery pick since 2010; now they’re in the playoffs and are set to go into the offseason with cap space and an enticing situation for prospective free agents. Things seem to be looking up.
Marks’s construction project has worked to imperfect perfection, built brick by brick from a collection of retread talents (DeMarre Carroll, Spencer Dinwiddie) and second-chance guys (D’Angelo Russell), from diamond-in-the-rough draft picks (Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen), to savvy veterans (Jared Dudley, Ed Davis). Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson have sneakily built one of the most fun teams in basketball.
Brooklyn’s pace is the 11th-fastest in the league this season, but it often felt like they played even more quickly, dashing from end to end with a style that was reckless (they turn the ball over at the sixth-highest rate in the league) but also exhilarating and sometimes very effective. For a team that felt like it was playing with house money all year long, free of expectations or burdened story lines, this strategy made sense. How do you compete with more talented teams? By making them uncomfortable with speed and lots of 3s. Only the Bucks, Hawks, Mavericks, and Rockets took more 3s this season than Brooklyn.
Sunday’s clincher was the perfect setting for the Nets to highlight the style that’s helped them win 41 games. Against the Pacers, who play at a glacial pace and thrive when they’re slowly probing and passing, milking the clock until they find the best possible shot, it was a stark contrast. Fittingly, it was D’Angelo Russell who led the way with 20 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The system deserves credit, but even the most egalitarian system needs a go-to option, a compass when things get rocky; so often this season, that was Russell.
Russell is almost too perfect a poster boy for the Nets’ reboot. Just two years ago, Magic Johnson questioned Russell’s leadership abilities and traded him away from Los Angeles; now the guard is the leader of a playoff team. And the bet the Nets made on him is indicative of the kinds of chances they needed to take in order to rebuild successfully. It was a calculated risk with a clear thought process and a bet on their own development program, which has gotten the best out of him.
Russell’s leap has put him in the playoffs before his former team (who are now in a six-year drought) and has made the Nets attention-worthy again. What they do from here on out is icing on top of the cake.
The Nets were not the only team who clinched a playoff spot Sunday. Orlando ousted Boston, 116-108, on the road and took its own spot after winning a paltry 25 games last season. Much of the credit should go to head coach Steve Clifford, who took over the Magic’s head coaching job this offseason and has led the team back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years with help from an All-Star-level contract year from Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, and Evan Fournier, among others.
Like the Nets, Orlando was not expected to make the playoffs before the season, but unlike the Nets, the Magic have had lottery picks in recent years and were unable to do much of anything with them. There was little reason to hope for even a decent season, let alone a playoff year, but Clifford’s system, along with incremental improvements from most of the roster, were just enough.
With one game left, Orlando is still playing for seeding. Though it’s currently the 7-seed, it could drop to eighth or rise to sixth. That means that other teams in the conference have something to play for, too. Here’s what the rest of Sunday’s games meant for the teams still jockeying for position at the bottom of the East’s playoff picture:
The Heat were hanging onto the playoffs by a thread going into Sunday and were edged by the Raptors in overtime. The loss, however, was not quite a death knell. Because the Hornets beat the Pistons (more on that in a bit), the Heat can still make the playoffs—they just need to win their last two games, have the Pistons lose their last two games, and have the Hornets lose one of their last two. Here’s the bad news: Detroit plays against the tanking Grizzlies and Knicks to finish the season.
Somehow, by the sweet stroke of Wisconsin god Frank Kaminsky (who had 24 points off the bench Sunday), the Hornets stayed in the playoff race by beating the Pistons. How can Charlotte get in and give Kemba Walker another taste of the playoffs before offering him a big contract? First, they have to win out themselves (they play the Cavs and Magic) and hope the Pistons drop one of the two against the aforementioned tanking teams.
The Pistons’ loss to the Hornets was bad, but Detroit is still in decent shape to make the playoffs. The Pistons need to beat the Knicks and Grizzlies to ensure a berth, but it’s not as easy as it may sound. Blake Griffin is nursing a knee injury that is clearly affecting his play. Griffin has been Detroit’s most important and best player; if he plays at a reduced level, the Hornets’ and Heat’s chances at making the playoffs drastically improve.
The only thing left for the Nets to do is figure out their seeding and playoff matchup. Do they want to face the Sixers or the Raptors? If Brooklyn wins its last game of the season against the Heat, it’ll clinch the 6-seed and go to Philly. But if it loses and Orlando wins out, it’ll have to get its passport ready.