The Brooklyn Nets are about to embark on the toughest stretch of their season: a seven-game road trip. Brooklyn’s first three opponents – the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz, and the LA Clippers – are nothing to be trifled with.
Thirteen is an important number at this point in the season for the Brooklyn Nets.
Thirteen teams in the NBA have better records than the Brooklyn Nets. Thirteen games stand in the way of Brooklyn’s first playoff birth since the 2014-2015 season.
Thirteen is the number worn by MVP candidate, Paul George; the first of many superstars that Brooklyn will have to contain amidst a brutal seven-game road stretch.
Over the next two weeks, the Brooklyn Nets will embark upon a crushing road trip that features five playoff teams and two on-the-bubble squads. To play seven road games in 15 days is tough enough. The added pressure of playing elite teams night-after-night is downright frightening.
Unsurprisingly, the Nets are the underdog in each of the next seven road games. In fact, Brooklyn isn’t favored in a single game until the very last one of the season; a meetup with the Miami Heat that—depending on how the bottom of the Eastern Conference shakes out—could have dire consequences. (Regardless of the standings, expect Miami to go all out in Dwyane Wade‘s final NBA game).
Luckily, Brooklyn has given itself some breathing room as it enters this brutal stretch. The team is currently 36-33, sitting at sixth-place in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn is in the midst of a four-game win-streak after pulverizing their playoff rival, the Detroit Pistons, by 30 points on Monday.
Brooklyn’s star, D’Angelo Russell, is in a serious slump. Their early-season cornerstone, Caris LeVert, can barely stay on the floor. The team’s offense has dropped to a bottom-four mark over the course of the last month.
Yet, somehow, they’ve been able to tack on wins. Brooklyn’s defense has come alive; the Nets have the second-best defensive rating since mid-February. It hasn’t been pretty but the young group of guys is getting it done.
With a fraction of their schedule remaining and a 4.5 game cushion over the ninth-place Orlando Magic, it is highly unlikely that Brooklyn will fall out of the playoffs. It is, however, essential that they remain in the sixth-spot to avoid playing the powerhouses in Toronto or Milwaukee during the first round of the playoffs.
Let’s take a look at the first trio of opponents that Brooklyn will face on the road.
Wednesday, Mar. 13th @ Oklahoma City Thunder
Brooklyn gets thrown right into the thick of it to begin this frightening stretch.
Oklahoma City has been one of the most fearsome teams in the Western Conference this season. They are a popular choice for the “most likely team to take down the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series.” (Keep in mind, the odds are low. But still, that’s significant!)
The Thunder have had a truly transformative year after coming off a humiliating six-game playoff loss against a young Utah Jazz team last season.
Oklahoma City has become Paul George’s team—at least statistically speaking. The 28-year-old wing has become every bit as important to Oklahoma City as the former franchise cornerstone, Kevin Durant. PG13 has posted career-highs in points (28.2 PPG), rebounds (8.2 REB), assists (4.2 AST), steals (2.3 STL), and multiple advanced categories.
As a team, the Thunder has picked up right where they left off in a schematic sense and has continued to be one of the most physically hounding defensive teams in the NBA.
Fortunately, Brooklyn might be catching the Thunder at the right time. Since Feb. 14, Oklahoma City has gone 4-7 in its last 11 games. For most of the season, the Thunder have hovered around top-five in defensive rating. Over the last month, they’ve been a mid-tier team in this regard.
To Oklahoma City’s credit, the scheduling gods haven’t been particularly kind. Their last couple of opponents include names like Utah, Portland, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Denver, Sacramento, and the LA Clippers.
It hasn’t helped that Paul George is in the midst of a serious slump. Since Valentine’s Day, the MVP candidate has shot just 28.7 percent from the field and a hideous 22.4 percent from three.
PG13 is prone to shooting slumps like this; especially during the later months of the NBA season. George went through a similarly discouraging shooting stretch over the last two months of the 2017-2018 season.
Here’s where things get tricky for the Nets: while George’s scoring has fallen off a cliff, his teammate, Russell Westbrook, appears to be getting hot at the right time.
The 2016 NBA MVP has put remarkably efficient numbers since mid-February. Russ has averaged 31.3 PPG on only 23.8 FGA while knocking-in 37 percent of his 9.1 attempted three-pointers per game.
Westbrook’s shooting proficiency from the field is a problem for the Nets. Brooklyn doesn’t have any defenders to boast with the required footspeed, physicality, and toughness to slow down Oklahoma City’s freak athlete of a point guard.
Expect Westbrook to have a field day while being defended by the slow-footed D’Angelo Russell.
If Brooklyn can find a way to continue Paul George’s slump, they could stand a chance. This will be no easy task.
Saturday, Mar. 16th @ Utah Jazz (37-29)
It’s been a strange season for the Utah Jazz.
Through the first three months of the season, the Jazz were one of the league’s worst teams – falling all the way to fourteenth in the Western Conference. A lot of this pertained to their schedule, which at the time, was the toughest in the league. But still, after such an encouraging playoff performance the previous season, their start to the season was undeniably disappointing.
Since Jan. 1, they’ve recovered. Utah has posted the seventh-best winning percentage out of all 30 teams.
If the season ended today, the Jazz would finish as the 8th-seed in the Western Conference. With 16 games remaining in their season, Utah has the easiest schedule in the NBA according to Tankathon.com.
Yet, somehow, even with encouraging play since the new year and an easy schedule, something just feels … off with this Utah team.
A big part of this pertains to Utah’s offensive system. Or should I say: the lack thereof.
Everything (and I mean everything) runs through second-year guard Donovan Mitchell. Since Jan. 1st, Mitchell has put up the fourth-highest usage rate next to the MVP-candidates James Harden and Joel Embiid, and surprisingly, Lou Williams.
To his credit, Mitchell has been pretty damn good with the ball in his hands this much. After struggling with efficiency early on, the second-year has averaged 27.4 points on nice efficiencies (43.5 FG%/38.3 3P%) during the new year.
Utah postulates a tough matchup for the Nets. When looking at the top-10 teams in both offensive rating and defensive rating, Brooklyn’s win-loss record is better against strong offensive teams than elite defensive teams.
The Nets can survive an offensive shootout (see: Brooklyn’s early-February victory against the Denver Nuggets).
But when Brooklyn goes up against a powerful opponent on defense – and one that can muck up their spacing – things get tricky.
Dismantling motion-heavy offenses is what Utah was built to do. When these two teams faced off on Nov. 28, that’s exactly what happened.
The Nets mustered up a meager 91 points against the Jazz; their fifth-worst point total through 69 games.
Utah’s center (and reigning Defensive Player of the Year), Rudy Gobert, was a terror for Brooklyn. The Stifle Tower made scoring around the rim nearly impossible for Brooklyn. His length was a problem for D’Angelo Russell on multiple occasions, and his sheer presence forced the All-Star guard into some ugly, air-balled floaters.
Gobert’s 7-foot-2 frame and condor-like 7-foot-8.5 wingspan were equally problematic for Jarrett Allen. By simply towering over him, Gobert completely erased The Fro’s pick-and-roll lob game. Not to mention, Gobert is much stronger than Brooklyn’s starting center and was able to push him out of his rebounding stance on multiple occasions.
Opponents have shot only 57.5 percent in the restricted area against Utah since the turn of the new year. That’s the stingiest mark in the league.
Unfortunately, jacking up threes against Utah’s defense isn’t a viable alternative. The Jazz have allowed the least three-point attempts per game since Jan. 1.
That’s a problem for Brooklyn’s offense. Kenny Atkinson has preached the importance of threes, layups, and free throws since the day of his hiring.
Atkinson must prove his worth as a Coach of the Year candidate and outsmart this gritty Utah defense. Perhaps this means he will look outside of his offensive system.
Sunday, Mar. 17th @ LA Clippers (39-30)
If there’s one game to shoehorn as a loss for Brooklyn during the seven-game trip, this is the one.
Normally, this Sunday matchup against the Clippers would be a game for the ages.
The LA Clippers’ coach, Doc Rivers, is one of the many rivals jousting with Kenny Atkinson in Coach of the Year voting. Atkinson and Rivers’ teams have exceeded expectations the most when looking at ESPN’s preseason win-predictions. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be prudent to consider this an audition for the illustrious award.
On top of this, Brooklyn has been lauded by many for its outstanding bench production. In terms of bench scoring, the Nets rank second in the NBA. Number one spot belongs to none other than the LA Clippers.
However, excitement for this game should end here.
Brooklyn will be 24 hours removed from battling the Jazz in Utah.
The second road game in a back-to-back is, statistically speaking, the toughest game to win. To make matters worse, the Nets will be exhausted after spending 48 minutes trying to score on one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
Brooklyn will be forced to minimize the impact of a boisterous LA Clippers rotation that goes 10 players deep and features names like Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Beverley. On any normal night, this is no easy task. It will be especially brutal following a 2.5-hour plane flight from Utah and very little sleep.
The Clippers, meanwhile, will be coming off a creampuff schedule. They play host to the 19-50 Chicago Bulls on Friday, Mar. 15. Then, LA enjoys a full day of rest before walking into their second-straight home game against Brooklyn.
Prediction: Brooklyn will go 0-3 through its first three games. With a tough back-to-back as well as two matchups against elite defensive teams, Brooklyn will post its worst scoring numbers of the season.
Stay tuned for Part II of this article, which will close out Brooklyn’s 7-game road trip and preview games against the Sacramento Kings, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Portland Trailblazers, and the Milwaukee Bucks.