After disposing of another mediocre opponent, the Nets proved their worth as an upper-echelon playoff team in the Eastern Conference. That in itself does not mean a heck of a lot, but they should finish the season as no worse than a No. 5 seed.
The Nets destroyed the Charlotte Bobcats, 105-89, Wednesday night in front of 16,862 fans. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett turned back the clock, combining for 35 points. Their early theatrics allowed head coach Jason Kidd to rest the duo and the other three starters for the entire fourth quarter.
While the Nets have certainly put the early-season doldrums behind them, their legitimacy as a conference contender remains up in the air. Even with a 14-5 stretch in the new year, the Nets still sit in the seventh seed. Not for long, though.
“There’s a big difference between the seventh spot and moving up to the third spot,” Pierce said. “We’re only a couple of games from the third spot. Every game is crucial at this point.”
“We want to try and move up as high as the three seed,” point guard Deron Williams said.
In no secret, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are the East’s two top dogs. Aside from the Toronto Raptors and Thursday night’s opponent, the Chicago Bulls, the Nets won’t find much resistance in this watered-down conference.
“With 31 games left, there’s going to be a lot of positioning going on in these last few weeks of the season, Pierce said. “We feel like there’s some winnable games, there’s going to be some dogfights, but we feel like we can come out over .500 after this (West coast) trip.”
The Bobcats entered the game riding one of their best seasons in recent memory, especially since they notched a 7-59 record just two years ago. They simply cannot compete with the Nets, despite their eighth seed.
The Nets now have the opportunity to distance themselves from the Bobcats.
“I think we’re definitely aware of [the standings],” Williams said. “Every guy’s different. Some guys might check every day. It’s kind of hard not to; we have our standings in the locker room on the big board.”
In many ways, teams like the Bobcats, Atlanta Hawks, and Washington Wizards should struggle against the Nets. The Nets wanted this talent, they asked for this talent, and they paid for this talent.
The Bobcats, on the other hand, needed to pry open their wallets with the jaws of life to sign Al Jefferson, one of the league’s best offensive centers. The signing worked as the Charlotte big man currently averages 20.3 ppg and 10.5 rpg. Discounting Kemba Walker, the rest of Jefferson’s teammates live a rung below the center and guard combo, though.
That scenario radiates throughout much of the league. Not many teams want to spend for more than one or two premium players. Division foes like the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers refuse even that much. They simply do not put a competitive product on the floor.
Maybe acquiring assets and expiring contracts until LeBron James retires makes the most sense for some of these meddling teams. At least the 76ers went for broke with a team bereft of even one veteran.
Aside from the Heat and Pacers, the Nets do not really face much opposition in the “Desire to Win” category. The Nets want success, and unlike the first two months of the season, they now play like it.
“When we have this type of chemistry with that kind of talent, we’re going to be a tough team to beat,” Pierce said.
That alone should mean something, but the first two months proved that they need to do more than suit up and walk onto the floor. The Nets remain cognizant of their positioning too. They put themselves in a precarious position with a sluggish start to the season, which included injuries, unfamiliarity, and downright lethargic play.
“This is the part of the season where ... you’ve got to have a great sense of urgency,” Pierce added. “You’ve got to know what’s coming on and you’ve got to expect it to be tough.
“This is a moment of truth for us.”
“We understand we have a lot of work to do,” Joe Johnson said. “We’re not complacent by [any] means.”