Home cooking serves up playoff berth

NEW YORK -- There was a time earlier this season when the Brooklyn Nets struggled to win at home and would completely unravel at the first sign of adversity.

Making the playoffs, which was supposed to be an afterthought for a team built with championship expectations, was anything but a given.

But on Tuesday night, the Nets continued their surging turnaround by clinching a playoff berth in record fashion with a 105-96 win over the Houston Rockets. The win was also the Nets' 14th-straight victory at home, setting a franchise record.

“It means a lot,” Nets guard Joe Johnson said of setting the franchise home streak. “Because I remember there was a time when we couldn’t get a win here in our own building. This is definitely a special moment.”

Johnson helped the Nets make franchise history with 32 points to lead six Nets in double figures. James Harden scored 26 points and Omer Asik grabbed 23 rebounds but it wasn’t enough for Houston to win without the injured Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley.

Since stumbling out to a 10-21 start, the Nets have gone 30-12 (a .714 winning percentage) since Jan. 1. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no team in NBA history entered the month of January at 10 or more games below .500 and went on to register a post-December win percentage of at least .600.

But with the turn of the calendar to 2014, the Nets turned the page on all their struggles to become the team they envisioned they would be when they acquired Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the offseason.

The Nets not only have posted the best record among Eastern Conference teams since Jan. 1 but they have had great success against Western Conference opponents. The win over Houston improved the Nets’ record to 18-12 against West teams.

“We expected to be in the playoffs,” Nets forward Paul Pierce said of clinching. “Just another step toward our goal. This is something we already expected to do. We are happy to make the playoffs, but that’s just a small goal of ours.”

Few would’ve believed a playoff berth was automatic when the Nets were struggling badly in November and December.

Jason Kidd was taking his baby steps as a first-time head coach and had to learn his way after demoting his lead assistant Lawrence Frank. He also had to endure a plethora of injuries that included a season-ending injury to franchise center Brook Lopez.

Ohm Youngmisuk discusses the Nets' attitude about the Knicks.

Play DownloadBut Kidd became more assertive as a coach, altering the offensive and defensive schemes more to the style he wanted them to play. And Lopez’s injury forced the Nets to go smaller with Pierce at power forward. The results have been staggering ever since New Year’s Day.

“The [Lopez] injury is something that kind of changed the whole landscape of who we were going to try to be and who we are now,” Kidd said. “We were trying to play through Brook and inside out. Now with Brook out, we have to go with to what you guys call a small lineup.”

“We just kind of changed the face of who we play inside,” Kidd added of posting up guards such as Shaun Livingston and Johnson. “That is what changed … the injuries we went through of shuffling different guys and ending up with Paul playing the stretch 4. … We kind of found our identity at that point.”

Kidd earned his second Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors on Tuesday, joining Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau as the only coaches to win the honor twice in the first season of being a head coach.

And Kidd earned the recognition this time despite not having Garnett for the entire month of March. The Nets went 12-4 in March, all without Garnett, who has missed 17 straight games with back spasms. Andrei Kirilenko (ankle) has also missed the last five games. Marcus Thornton (back) also did not play against Houston.

As good as the Nets are playing right now, they feel they can get better once at full strength.

“If you are going to make a long playoff run, possibly go to the [NBA] Finals, you got to get healthy,” Pierce said. “We need to get healthy if we expect to do anything come playoff time.”

The Nets hope to continue to rise in the standings as they chase the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls for the third or fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round. The Nets trail the Raptors and Bulls by 1.5 games in the standings with nine games remaining.

While the Nets have much bigger goals to accomplish, Johnson allowed himself for one night to reflect on how far they have come since December by clinching a playoff spot and winning 14 straight at Barclays.

“We’ve been in an uphill climb pretty much the whole year and playing catchup,” Johnson said. “To clinch is somewhat of a relief, but we understand we got a lot more work to do. We want to move up.”

“It’s the strangest [thing] because we had a moment when we were just really, really terrible,” Johnson added. “I’m glad the better [play] came in the second half.”