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Nets Charging Toward a Playoff Berth

Deron Williams flipped a switch Thursday that lit the Empire State Building blue in honor of Autism Awareness Day, and he did so with a smile on his face as illustrated on the NBA’s Instagram account. Fortunately for fans of the Brooklyn Nets, this “flipping of the switch” also epitomizes what their team has done after losing five straight games at the beginning of March.

The month actually began on a high note, as Brooklyn, on the strength of some late-game Jarrett Jack heroics, defeated the NBA’s best team, the Golden State Warriors. The Nets were able to overcome the greatness of MVP candidate Stephen Curry (26 points on 8-of-16 shooting) to win the game at the end of regulation.

Following that two-point victory, the Nets were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, sitting just a half-game ahead of Indiana. In fact, only three games separated the six teams that were vying for the final two playoff spots. The modest two-game winning streak that included wins over the Mavericks and Warriors was astronomical as it catapulted the Nets into the postseason picture.

The positive feeling emanating from Brooklyn was quickly attenuated thanks to a five-game losing streak that then had the Nets looking up in the standings at the eighth-seeded Heat, who stood 3½ games ahead. There were feelings of agitation and worry that this team would miss the playoffs, but then they flipped that switch.

Winners of nine of 11, the Nets are no longer backseat driving and are in control of their destiny. It’s difficult when your playoff birth is predicated on the results of other games, because you get into the habit of scoreboard watching that could ultimately affect your psyche and potentially derail you in the long run. Fortunately for this team, that isn’t the case right now.

While the Nets are indeed playing good basketball, it behooves us to give credit where it’s due. Hours, and even minutes, up to the NBA trade deadline, you sifted through various reports that indicated that Brooklyn was engaged in talks with the Oklahoma City Thunder that involved ridding themselves of Brook Lopez in exchange for Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson.

If you were a Nets fan, you were hoping this amounted to an April Fool’s joke that came two months early, because there’s no way you’d be in this position right now sans the services of Lopez. Ultimately it came down to the reluctance of Nets ownership to agree to this without knowing whether Jackson would re-sign next season.

Now, if you look at the fact that you would have received the expiring contract of Perkins and saying good riddance to the $16.7 million player option attached to Lopez for next season, it wouldn’t have been a horrible deal. At least not at the time. But as I alluded to, the reason the Nets are where they are right now is because of Lopez.

In the last 10 games, Lopez has been dominant, averaging 24.1 points and 9.0 rebounds while shooting 61 percent. These are the kind of numbers you were looking for when you drafted him in the first round with the 10th pick back in 2008. He has also asserted himself defensively by averaging 2.8 blocks, which illustrates the imposing of his will.

Coaches always have to worry about their bigs getting into foul trouble due to the physicality that occurs when guarding their counterpart and picking up on defense when handling guard penetration. But to the delight of Lionel Hollins, that hasn’t been an issue as of late. In the 16 games Lopez played in March, he averaged just 2.6 personal fouls, which was his lowest mark since December, when he averaged 2.0 fouls. (Albeit in only eight games) This had a direct impact on the amount of minutes he played last month, as he averaged 32.4 minutes in March, the highest of any previous month during the season.

You can also look at the health of Lopez as a reason he has been on the floor as much as he has lately. Earlier in the season he missed some time due to back issues, and we’re all cognizant of the foot injuries he has battled in the past. At 26, Lopez is probably feeling the healthiest he has in quite some times, and it has led to positive results in the win column for his team.

I won’t neglect to mention that there was a trade that actually took place for the Nets back at the deadline that sent Kevin Garnett back home to Minnesota and brought the versatile, young and athletic Thaddeus Young to Brooklyn. According to NetsDaily, this acquisition along with the insertion of Markel Brown into the starting lineup has propelled the Nets to success.

Since “replacing” the Big Ticket in Brooklyn, Young has posted averages of 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds and has shot 49 percent from the field. Brown has contributed significantly by providing his team with a lift of energy and aggressiveness. Hollins also has alluded to the impact these players have had on Williams, who has been playing much more confidently since the All-Star break. (13.0 PPG, 6.9 APG, 3.7 RPG)

With eight games remaining in the regular season, Brooklyn is in position to play well enough to reach as high as the sixth seed in the East, or crush the hearts of fans and go on an impromptu losing streak that would kill their playoff hopes.

After Thursday night’s loss to the Cavaliers, the Heat fell to the No. 8 seed and Brooklyn took a half-game lead at No. 7 heading into Friday night’s action. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who would pick the Nets to upset the Hawks or Cavaliers, but fans are just itching for the chance to watch their team get an opportunity to achieve that feat because of how well the team is playing.

In the Nets’ “signature” win over the Knicks that completed a sweep of their cross-town rivals this season, you saw a compilation of all these guys contributing. Lopez corralled an offensive board that led to a putback layup to win the game. After missing two games, Young played well against the Pacers and then against New York by tallying 19 points and nine rebounds. Brown put forth a solid outing by scoring in double digits for the third straight game, and Williams led all scorers with 26 points while also dishing out seven assists. It’ll take a collective effort every single night if they want to continue their winning ways.

In addition, the Nets can also reap the benefit of having two clutch players on the roster. I would surmise that if a game is close, Jack and Joe Johnson are two of the top 10 players I would want on my team. Their uncanny ability to take and make crucial shots late in games is something to marvel at.

Friday night is a huge test for the surging Nets as they take on the Toronto Raptors. With an emphasis on winning games the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot, we’ll see if Brooklyn can continue to keep the switch flipped in its favor. Who knows? This might amount to a potential first-round matchup and a rematch from last year’s playoffs, when the Nets upset Drake’s Raptors. You know they’d relish having the chance to right their wrongs, but it would be the Nets reifying the “started from the bottom, now we’re here” philosophy.

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