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Battle-Tested Nets Deserve Your Respect

Bryan Smith/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

It hasn’t been a picturesque display, but the Brooklyn Nets have actually played respectable basketball lately.

Lionel Hollins’s squad earned back-to-back victories for the first time this season with a 94-91 triumph over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, and they’ve won three of their last five games. Improved defensive chemistry and ball distribution has given the Nets a fighting chance to win these last few contests.

They stumbled to their lowest point on Nov. 21 in a 120-95 loss to the Boston Celtics. Avery Bradley and Co. got whatever they wanted, piling up 43 points in the second quarter and tallying 39 total assists. It was an embarrassing defeat in every phase of the game, and it seemingly served as a wake-up call considering how strong Brooklyn has looked since.

While the Nets aren’t loaded with talent, they have plenty of veterans and competitors. They recovered from the Beantown debacle with a bounce-back win over the Shamrocks, a pair of hard-fought losses against Oklahoma City and Cleveland, and back-to-back wins over Detroit and Phoenix.

Jarrett Jack attributes some of the team’s recent success to the brutal November schedule, which included tilts against the Bulls, Spurs, Hawks (twice), Warriors, Thunder and Cavaliers:

Even the losses to the Thunder and Cavs were mostly encouraging.

Brooklyn competed admirably against OKC on the road, but succumbed to MVP-caliber shot-making barrages from both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the second half. There’s no shame in losing when KD is raining triples over your best defender (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson). Then in Cleveland, Hollins’s bunch worked hard in the paint to keep it close, but the Cavs won thanks to a clutch LeBron James floater and a pair of controversial no-calls (the NBA admitted to missing both).

The Nets’ effort has been rewarded at home, where they’ve won four in a row and dictated their preferred playing style. During their victories against the Pistons and Suns, Brooklyn controlled the paint, crashed the boards and shared the rock. The defense rotated as a unit and finished off possessions, consequently holding Detroit to 83 points and Phoenix to 91 points.

As I mentioned earlier, these weren’t pretty wins, and there are still some glaring deficiencies on this lower-tier team. Brooklyn is still faltering in the three-point department in a big way, routinely failing to make more than five triples per game while their opponents regularly hit 10-plus.

But the Nets are finally executing in several other key areas, and they’re also getting strong contributions from both the starters and bench.

Brooklyn is ranked in the top half of the league in rebounds per game, offensive rebounds per game, offensive rebound chances and offensive rebounding percentage (per Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com). That’s a result of taking advantage of its size and playing hungry, and that kind of effort has afforded capable scorers like Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young second chances.

Speaking of playing hungry, the Nets’ bench has stepped it up lately:

Sure, Bojan Bogdanovic is still in a puzzling, disappointing swoon, but the rest of the reserves are getting the job done in gritty fashion. Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and Thomas Robinson have all been discarded by multiple teams in their young careers, and they’re clearly out to prove they can compete at a high level.

Larkin’s 11 points, eight assists and two steals against Phoenix is his latest exhibition of speedy hustle and creativity. He’s supplied end-to-end energy, steady pick-and-roll playmaking and timely shooting for much of the season. Benny Nadeau of The Brooklyn Game explained Larkin’s value:

It honestly doesn’t seem outrageous to say that Shane Larkin is Brooklyn’s third-most important player behind Lopez and Hollis-Jefferson. Each and every night, Larkin is the spark plug that moves at a thousand miles per hour and, thus far, he’s been reliable no matter the moment or amount of time he receives.

The starters haven’t dominated, but they’re fighting like the reserves and playing to their strengths. Brooklyn would obviously love to hit more three-pointers, but at least Hollins’s crew is generating quality looks from mid-range and converting them at a high rate.

The Nets are a top eight unit in elbow (free-throw edge) touches, elbow field goal makes and elbow field goal percentage, and they lead the league in elbow points percentage. Young, Lopez and Joe Johnson do a nice job of exploiting the middle of the floor and sinking open 15-17 footers.

Lastly, no favorable appraisal of the Nets is complete without patting Hollis-Jefferson on the back. His half-court offense is still minimal, but he continues to bring a valuable spark on defense and in transition. Coach Hollins trusts RHJ to start and finish games because his effort and instincts are terrific:

In early November, many onlookers (including myself) wondered if the Nets were the worst team in the league. Those questions were well-justified, considering how sloppy they looked on both ends of the floor.

But Brooklyn has separated itself from the true laughingstocks of the league — the youthful, hapless 76ers and Lakers — by rallying together on defense and playing mentally strong late in games. They aren’t noticeably more talented than the cellar-dwelling franchises, but it’s readily apparent that they have more veterans to lean on.

After suffering through a meat-grinder schedule in November and piling up L’s, the Nets have adjusted nicely and will now enjoy seven straight games in the Big Apple. After staggering to a hugely disappointing start, they now look like a competitive group worth rooting for.

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