INDIANAPOLIS -- This is how you put yourself right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race: Play .500 basketball.
The Brooklyn Nets have done just that since the All-Star break, going 8-8. As a result, they’ve moved within a game of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with 14 games remaining on their 2014-15 schedule.
“We’ve still been up and down, but a little less up and down,” Deron Williams said after the Nets backed up a marathon, triple-overtime victory over Milwaukee on Friday with a gutsy 123-111 win in Indiana on Saturday.
The Nets (29-39) have no incentive to miss the playoffs and every incentive to make them. They don’t want to be biting their fingernails while watching the upcoming NBA Draft lottery and praying their first-round pick swap with the Atlanta Hawks turns out to be around 15 for 30, not 1 for 30. They also don’t want their season to turn out to be a total failure, the cost of which would be around $80-something million in payroll, along with an additional $20 million in luxury taxes.
That they beat the young Bucks and Paul George-less Pacers, both of whom have lost five straight, matters little because they got the wins. At this point, that’s all that matters.
“We understand the regular season is coming to an end, and we’re just trying to give ourselves a chance to make the postseason,” Joe Johnson said.
GM Billy King, whose decision-making put this team in mediocrity, at least gave the Nets a chance to salvage everything by going out and acquiring Thaddeus Young at the trade deadline in exchange for Kevin Garnett. Young has averaged 13.9 points with Brooklyn while shooting 51.6 percent from 3-point territory. His athleticism and versatility have proved a welcome addition to the lineup. Perhaps most importantly, he has played well in tandem with Brook Lopez, with the duo outscoring the opposition by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in their 317 minutes together.
“He’s been terrific for us,” Johnson said of Young.
Lopez has been terrific as well, finally returning to form and playing with consistency following all the foot injuries he’s endured in his career. Since the break, the 7-footer is averaging 16.9 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Throw in a suddenly confident Bojan Bogdanovic (55 percent shooting since the break), who has thrived as the focal point of the second unit offensively, along with Joe Johnson (45.1 percent) when he’s making clutch shots down the stretch and not bothered by tendinitis in his knees, and the Nets have plenty of nice pieces to work with.
Despite the fact that Williams has shot just 39.1 percent since the break, in that span, Brooklyn ranks seventh in the NBA in offensive rating and first in points in the paint. The problem is the Nets rank 24th in defensive rating, but it is what it is, and they are who they are.
On Saturday, Williams came out extremely aggressive, scoring 15 points in the first quarter and looking locked in. He played only 22 minutes Friday night, and his teammates were tired after landing in Indianapolis at 3:30 a.m. ET, so he stepped up and carried the load. But for the second straight essentially must-win game, he was stapled to the bench down the stretch -- this time, not because he was playing poorly. Jarrett Jack, the oft-criticized backup who frequently makes questionable decisions that hurt the team, played the final 16:50. But this time, he played well.
Asked why he decided to go that way, Nets coach Lionel Hollins responded, “Because I did. That’s just my choice as a coach. Nothing personal. The lineup that was in there, I just thought we should go that way.”
It worked. Whether it will work going forward remains to be seen, but Hollins deserved credit for going small against the bigger Pacers, who allowed his players to exploit some matchups offensively. Johnson and Bogdanovic delivered the clutch shots in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and allowed the Nets to return home with a huge W.
Next up are the Boston Celtics on Monday at Barclays Center. It’s another game the Nets have to win if they want to keep themselves in the race. “A must-win,” Johnson called it.
The Nets might be flawed. Their long-term outlook might be bleak, but at least they’ve given themselves a chance to get in the playoffs.
At this juncture, that’s basically all you can ask for.