In the Eastern Conference, anything can happen.
With a 91-86 win over the Atlanta Hawks Monday night at the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets proved that their conference lacks much dominance after the top two teams. The Hawks entered the game with the conference’s third best record and the shorthanded Nets made quick work of them in the second half.
The Nets won their third straight game for the second time this season.
“We’re undefeated this year,” guard Alan Anderson said. “So we just want to keep that rolling. We know we have a couple of tough games ahead of us, but like I said, we’re taking it one game at a time, one practice at a time and keeping it up.”
Although the Hawks played without All-Star center Al Horford, the Nets missed Deron Williams with a left ankle sprain. The Nets will also miss center Brook Lopez for the remainder of the season with a broken foot.
“From the summer to today’s date, there’s been a lot of injuries,” Kidd said. “It just shows how deep we are and the character we have in that locker room to compete.”
The Nets displayed the kind of cohesiveness necessary to make a turnaround, though. While not perfect, the Nets received solid contributions from role players like Andrei Kirilenko and Mirza Teletovic. But the Nets completed their damage on the defensive end. They rotated quickly and applied constant pressure to the Hawks’ guards.
The Nets limited the Hawks to 34 points in the second half and 38.6 percent shooting from the field.
As head coach Jason Kidd said earlier in the season, the offense will come. The Nets need to build their identity on the defensive end. Although Kidd started preaching defense during his first day on the job, the Nets experienced mixed results throughout much of the year. During the winning streak, the defense grabbed the spotlight.
Kirilenko’s return from a back injury surely cured some of what ailed the Nets.
“I think we feel more comfortable defensively,” Kirilenko said. “If you look at the last six minutes of the game, we were switching everything, a good switch, not a bad switch to create mismatches. It was just good switches, the right guy going to the right guy.
“That’s what we want to accomplish here, smart basketball,” Kirilenko added.
The Nets cannot worry about their record, either. In the Eastern Conference, all sorts of win-loss totals will squeeze into the playoffs. The hottest team ultimately wins, and the Nets must hope they can gel come April.
A little luck with injuries would certainly help too.
Williams has struggled all season with his ankles, so his health remains a major question mark going forward. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will obviously not find fresher legs as the season goes forward.
If Kirilenko can avoid more back spasms, the Nets might surprise a few teams, though. Even with injuries, the Nets’ depth should allow them to withstand the nicks and bruises of the NBA season.
“We see how much our defense can generate our offense - easy buckets, getting in the open court, the ball movement,” Anderson said. “We’re talking a lot more on defense, so once we do that, it’s a lot more fun when you see us getting easy baskets, layups, and stuff like that.”
The Nets’ performance without Williams comes as a pleasant surprise. Shaun Livingston filled in admirably, scoring 12 points in 34:19. Kidd also relied on Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to pick up some of the slack.
The Nets receive a far tougher opponent in their next game in the Golden State Warriors. If they play without Williams, using a revolving door at point guard might prove problematic against Stephen Curry and the high-paced Warriors’ offense.
The Warriors come to Barclays Center riding a 9-game winning streak. They’ll likely push that mark to 10 as they play the NBA’s worst team in the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.