The final stretch of the 2018-19 season begins Wednesday, as the Brooklyn Nets seek to seal their first playoff berth since 2015. We're picking this point to coincide with the start of a seven-game road trip that Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has been pointing to as an upcoming challenge for a while now.
After the road trip, the Nets will play four of their final six games at home, but the opponents include the Bucks (twice), Raptors, Pacers, and Celtics before the season concludes against the Miami Heat at Barclays Center on April 10.
So it's a good time to reset and take a look at where the Nets stand, and what awaits. As they hit the road, they're in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a 36-33 record, a half-game ahead of the Detroit Pistons after their 103-75 win over the Pistons Monday night. Brooklyn is 4.5 games ahead of ninth-place Orlando and holds head-to-head tiebreakers over the Magic and the Pistons.
Lineups and Rotations
Stability in this area has been difficult through the season due to the way Kenny Atkinson has had to navigate around injuries. But it would seem that things have settled in with the latest starting lineup from the last four games: D'Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis coming off the bench, the Nets have gone nine deep since Kurucs moved into the starting lineup for the injured Treveon Graham. Carroll did leave Monday's game with a hyperextended knee, so we'll have to see if he's out, and if so for how long, and what the Nets do for a backup power forward in any absence.
Plenty of Drama
Saturday's 114-112 win over Atlanta was Brooklyn's league-leading 11th by three points or less. They've played 18 such games, also a league high. The Nets are 21-17 in 'clutch' games — defined as a margin of five points or fewer in the final five minutes — but 17-5 in their last 22. The 38 total games are tied for fifth in the NBA. Last season, the Nets were second with 50 clutch games.
December 7 Turnaround
Since their Dec. 7 win over Toronto ended an eight-game losing streak, the Nets have played 43 games, just over a half-season's worth. During that time, the Nets are 28-15, tied for the third-most wins in the league. That's a .651 winning percentage, a 54-win pace. Brooklyn is eighth in the league in defensive rating (108.0), eighth in rebounding percentage (50.8), and 12th in effective field goal percentage (53.0) in that span.
Challenge for the Offense
Of the 12 teams left on Brooklyn's schedule, eight are ranked in the NBA's top 10 for defensive rating, including the Bucks who the Nets will play twice.
ROAD TRIP OPPONENTS
Oklahoma City Thunder (41-26)
The Thunder are fourth in the Western Conference, a game behind the rising Rockets. Paul George is the NBA's second-leading scorer (28.2 ppg) and Russell Westbrook leads in assists (10.5). The duo is also first (George, 2.3) and third (Westbrook, 2.0) in the league in steals. The Thunder are first in team steals (9.8) and have the NBA's No. 4 defensive rating (105.7).
Utah Jazz (37-29)
When the Jazz brought a 9-12 record into Brooklyn in late November, Kenny Atkinson noted their "hellacious schedule." They're 28-17 since and in eighth place in the Western Conference, but also just a game back of the sixth-place Clippers. The Jazz are third in the league in defensive rating (105.7).
Los Angeles Clippers (39-29)
The Clippers have climbed back into playoff position by winning eight of their last 10. They're in sixth place in the west, two games behind No. 5 Portland. Like the Nets, they play a lot of close games and have a knack for winning them. The Clippers have played 37 'clutch' games, one fewer than Brooklyn, and is third in the league with 22 'clutch' wins.
Sacramento Kings (33-33)
The Kings have already won six more games than they did last season, putting them in the mix with the Nets for one of the NBA's biggest year-over-year improvements. But they've dropped seven of their last 10 to fall four games behind eighth-place Utah. Sacramento had three players in the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend — De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley. Buddy Hield leads Sacramento with 21.0 points per game and is fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage (43.8). The Kings have also added Harrison Barnes since their 123-94 loss to the Nets on Jan. 21.
Los Angeles Lakers (30-36)
It's getting tough to keep up with the goings on out here. The Lakers have lost nine of 11 to wipe out any shot at the playoffs, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are likely out for the season, and the Lakers announced a plan to limit LeBron James' minutes. Their game against the Nets will be their first at home after their own five-game road trip, but they'll have two days off beforehand.
Portland Trail Blazers (40-26)
The Blazers are in it with the Rockets and Thunder in a battle for the Western Conference's third seed. They're a half-game behind OKC and 1.5 behind Houston. Portland shoots 35.8 percent from 3-point range, eighth in the league, and gets to the boards, ranking third in rebounding (47.7) and second in rebound percentage (52.2). The Blazers are fifth in offensive rating (112.6) behind the backcourt of Damian Lillard (26.1 ppg, 6.4 apg, 36.7 3PT%) and CJ McCollum (21.2 ppg, 37.5 3PT%). Jusuf Nurkic averages 15.3 points and 10.2 rebounds.
Philadelphia 76ers (42-25)
This is, what, the third incarnation of the Sixers the Nets will see this season? There was pre-Jimmy Butler, plus-Jimmy Butler and now plus-Tobias Harris. There were three wild games in less than a month in November and December, with the Nets taking two and being burned by Butler's game-winner in the third. The battle between the Sixers, Pacers and Celtics hasn't exactly been a race to the finish, but one of them will take the Eastern Conference's third seed. The Sixers are fifth in the NBA in points (114.9), fourth in rebounds (47.2), third in assists (27.1), and 11th in offensive rating (111.0).
EASTERN CONFERENCE CROWD
Detroit Pistons (34-32)
The Nets slipped back ahead of Detroit for sixth place in the Eastern Conference with Monday's 103-75 win. The Pistons came into Brooklyn as one of the NBA's hottest teams, winners of 12 of their previous 14.
Miami Heat (31-35)
The Heat just don't go away. They lost nine out of 11 at one point, beginning at the end of January. But then they won four straight, beginning with a win over the Nets, before Sunday's loss to Toronto. A challenging stretch awaits; Detroit and Milwaukee at home followed Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Milwaukee on the road.
Orlando Magic (31-37)
The Magic won seven of eight going into the All-Star break to move back into the race. Aside from that stretch, they're 24-36 on the season. They're 4-5 since the break. The next two weeks offer opportunity for the Magic; after they visit the Wizards on Wednesday, they've got a five-game home stand that begins with Cleveland, Atlanta, New Orleans and Memphis.
Charlotte Hornets (30-37)
The Hornets have lost nine of their last 12. While the Nets have the league's toughest remaining strength of schedule, Charlotte checks in at No. 8. Not a good place to be when you're seven games under .500. A playoff spot remains a possibility as the Hornets are just 1.5 games behind Miami — passing the Nets to get there seems less likely.