BROOKLYN--By Lenn Robbins -
A marathon has become a sprint.
When the Nets return from the All Star break they will have a mere 31 games remaining before the playoffs start.
"The All-Star break is important with rest and that we come back as a team,'' said coach Jason Kidd. "We sit down as a team and talk about what our goal is with 31 games left."
The goal has to be to move up in the standings.
The Nets (24-27) currently hold the 7th playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of Charlotte and one-half game behind Washington.
It's crucial they move up. As currently positioned they would face the two-time defending NBA champion Heat in the first round. Not good.
A slip to eighth gets them a first-round date with the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers swept the season series with the Nets.
A move up to sixth sets up a series with the Toronto Raptors, a vastly improved team. The Nets beat the Raptors, 102-100, lost 96-80 and suffered a gut-retching 104-103 loss when Deron Williams threw away a late inbounds pass.
Of course, so much can happen before the playoffs start and the Nets surely have their work cut out.
The final 31 games begin with a brutal six-game West Coast road swing. Veteran forward Paul Pierce didn't mince words when asked the importance of this trip.
"We haven't been a great road team,'' said Pierce. "This is the moment of truth for us right now. We understand the sense of urgency, but we feel there are some winnable games for us. There'll be some dogfights. We feel like we can come out over .500 from this trip."
Here are a few keys to the 'Final 31.'
1. The Health of Deron Williams: He has had an injury-riddled start to the season, suffering three sprains of his left ankle that cost him 26 of 51 games.
After the 92-76 loss in Chicago, the Nets' last game before the break, Williams said he is starting to feel better physically. His confidence needs a boost.
"I'm going to step away for a little bit and get my mind right more than anything," said Williams.
2. Back It Up in Back-to-Backs: For the Nets to make a move up in the standings and inspire confidence that they can prevail in a playoff series, the Nets will have to show improvement in the second of back-to-back games.
The Nets were 2-10 in the second of back-to-backs.
"I can't really put my finger on it," Pierce said. "It's something that has to do with being mentally tough."
3. Start Fast: The Nets suffered a horrific start to the season, opening with 21 losses in 31 games. If they duplicate that, forget all that talk about playoff seeding. The Nets will be booking tee times.
It took Kidd and the Nets time to find an identity, especially after center Brook Lopez was lost for the season with a broken bone in his foot.
The 'Small Ball' lineup has made the Nets much better on both ends although rebounding remains a real problem area.
Every team in the league with playoff aspirations knows its time to make a push. The Nets must push hard.
"This is that part of the season, when you're on the road like that you have to have a great sense of urgency," Pierce said. "You have to know what's coming. You have to expect it to be tough."