Brooklyn Nets look to continue underdog season in playoffs
It's December 5th, 2018 and the Barclays Center crowd is dead silent. The Brooklyn Nets are on a 7-game losing streak and what seemed like a blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder has turned in the opposite direction.
A 20-point fourth quarter lead has been cut down to one with 8.1 seconds remaining. Oklahoma City has the ball and Nets fans are on the edge of their seat, fearing the worst.
George runs up to screen Spencer Dinwiddie but instead slips the screen to the three-point line. He catches the pass from Westbrook, shot fakes, and steps to the side for a wide-open three to win the game.
All of the Nets fan's fears have come to fruition. George confidently steps into his shot, releases the ball, and watches it splash through the net, delivering a knockout punch to a depleted Brooklyn crowd.
This appeared to be the end for Brooklyn. On an eight-game losing streak and having lost their most productive player in Caris LeVert, Nets fans were calling for the tank. But then something different happened.
Jared Dudley called for a players-only meeting. The 12-year veteran led a film session in which the team broke down tape and found areas in which each player can improve.
The Nets would win their next seven games on their way to closing the season out 34-22 and clinching their first playoff berth since 2016. Brooklyn will face off with the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday in what will be the first playoff game for numerous faces on this young team.
Dudley, who many assumed would be bought out upon his acquisition by Brooklyn, and LeVert, who went down with what appeared to be a gruesome season-ending injury in November, were the x-factors in the final games of Brooklyn's playoff push.
At 33-years-old, Dudley's physical tools are limited, but the veteran uses an impressive basketball IQ to make savvy plays that that don't show up on the stat sheet.
The forward posted his best performance of the season in an April 1st win in Milwaukee, a game Brooklyn absolutely needed to have. Dudley tallied 16 points, six rebounds, and two steals and was a team-best +19 BPM in the win.
Backdoor cuts, offensive rebounds, help defense (on and off the ball), smart fouls, and the occasional three allowed Dudley to fill the hole at power forward and impact games at a crucial point in the season.
LeVert found his rhythm when the Nets needed him most after returning from injury. The 24-year-old averaged 16.0 PPG and 4.3 APG on 45% (14-31) shooting from three in Brooklyn's final eight games.
Russell and LeVert present a matchup problem to wreak havoc against a Philadelphia team that struggled to defend the mid-range and pick and roll. 76ers head coach Brett Brown has noticed the aptitude of the duo in the pick and roll and isn't taking Brooklyn lightly.
“Dangerous. Completely dangerous. They got a bunch of players that can play out of a live ball or a pick-and-roll. And when I assess where are we weak, where do we need the most help, it’s pick-and-roll defense. […] The matchup scares you," Brown said.
Brooklyn's outside shooting is also always a determining factor in the flow of the offense. With Allen Crabbe sidelined and defenders keying on Joe Harris, defenders have often felt that they can play off of certain players, particularly LeVert and Rodions Kurucs, and give them open shots. Those two must step up.
When defenders have to respect the three-point shot of LeVert in the backcourt and Kurucs at power forward, both of whom have struggled from three throughout the season, the entire floor opens up. It allows Brooklyn's guards, particularly Russell, to get into the teeth of the defense and use court vision to find shooters or spark ball movement.
Another pressing issue is how will the Nets matchup with Joel Embiid. The two-time all-star has dominated Brooklyn this season, posting 39 points and 13 rebounds in Philadelphia's latest win over the Nets.
Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson may turn to veteran center Ed Davis over Jarrett Allen as the primary option to cover Embiid and limit second-chance opportunities. While Allen is a superb shot blocker, he has been abused by big-bodied centers in the post and on the glass down the stretch of the season.
Davis has provided Brooklyn with a steady presence in both of those areas and has playoff experience that Allen does not.
Another key component of this matchup will be Brooklyn's depth. Philadephia boasts a loaded starting five that featured four stars in Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris alongside Embiid, but the Nets feature a more balanced roster.
The 76ers play a rotation that typically features eight, sometimes nine, players with a significant drop off in production from the starters to the bench. The Nets have the ability to run 10-deep in a balanced attack with Dinwiddie, LeVert, and Davis coming off the bench.
This isn't the first-time an overlooked Nets team is looking to knock off a top-ranked Philadelphia squad. In 1984, the Nets knocked off the defending-champion 76ers to win the first NBA series in franchise history.
The Nets won the first two games of the series in Philladelphia as Buck Williams and Michael Ray Richardson were dominant. New Jersey lost the next two in the Meadowlands but came back to win the decisive Game 5 in Philly 101-98 as the Nets limited Dr. J to just 12 points in 41 minutes with Richardson and Otis Birdsong coming through with 24 points apiece.
Now across the river, this young Nets team will look to recapture some of that magic and continue their underdog story into the playoffs.
The fact that Brooklyn posted a winning record and is in the playoffs deprived of lottery picks just three seasons in the Marks-Atkinson era is a testament to the culture the organization has built.
General Manager Sean Marks has constantly found ways to replenish the draft stock and find the right guys through extensive scouting. Brooklyn's coaching staff has developed those players and instilled a culture that thrives on hard work and selflessness.
A winning record and playoff berth have already made this season a success, but don't expect this Brooklyn squad to go down without a fight.