NEW YORK -- No one seems to be convinced that the Brooklyn Nets are contenders. At least not in a real sense, as in: a team that could win the Eastern Conference, putting them just four wins from an NBA title.
"There's only two teams talked about, Miami and Indiana," Nets coach Jason Kidd said about the current perception. "And no one else has a chance."
And maybe that's fair. The Nets play in the same conference as the Miami Heat, LeBron's Miami Heat, and the Indiana Pacers, who stretched Miami to the limit twice in the playoffs, and could be better than ever this year.
"It's hard to call them title contenders when the success story within reach has everything to do with upsetting Miami or Indiana in the playoffs," said Jake Appleman, author of the excellent and recently-released Brooklyn Bounce, about the Nets' first season in Brooklyn. "It's dangerous to fast forward to that point, given the team's overall performance, and hard to think past it as well. Still, they've been the best team in the East in 2014, so if you'd like to apply the Jay-Z lyric 'convenient amnesia' to 2013, dream at your own peril."
I spent Friday night arguing with Appleman, with other Nets writers, with myself. I'm not sure what I think. The arguments for and against the Nets as contenders are both pretty compelling. And the argument in favor just got more compelling: Jason Kidd just got Kevin Garnett back.
Garnett or no Garnett, I do know this: In the current basketball conversation, in the media and elsewhere, the Nets are settled in as also-rans. On the night the Nets won their 15th straight home game, The New York Times didn't send their beat reporter, and the Nets were bumped from YES for the Yankee debut of Masahiro Tanaka.
Still, that's all rational, right? Entering Friday night's game, the Nets weren't even in line to host a first-round playoff series. Their best interior scorer, Brook Lopez, is lost for the season. Garnett, their biggest-name acquisition this offseason, hadn't played since Feb. 27. Their most versatile player and wing defensive stopper, Andrei Kirilenko, returned Friday after missing two weeks, the latest injury time for a player who's taken the floor just 38 times all season.
But the Nets were never built to dominate the regular season. Billy King took a team that won 49 games last year, added Paul Pierce, Garnett and Kirilenko to the mix, and hoped it would all come together by the time the playoffs started, to catch a wave for six weeks, not excel for six months. And if we're weighing the evidence within that framework, a lot is going right. Enough that it's probably worth asking: Are the Brooklyn Nets contenders?
I mean, no, right? There's Miami and Indiana, for starters. Except that's the Miami Heat that the Nets have already beaten three times this season. Most recently, the Nets beat the Heat in Miami, with the Heat featuring LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The trio shot 23 for 38, scoring 65 points. The Nets won anyway.
You might remember that Pierce and Garnett are part of a team that doesn't fear LeBron James the way almost everyone around the league does. Pierce and Garnett, as Celtics, saw James as vulnerable. And three times this season, their Nets have proven it. Kirilenko is back, and he wasn't when the Nets won the last one in Miami. Garnett, the Nets hope, will improve the team -- he wasn't part of that win, either. It was the Nets who were shorthanded. It was the Nets who won.
No, it doesn't prove that the Nets can beat the Heat four out of seven in the playoffs. But it sure doesn't prove that they can't. Why are we so sure?
Really, though, there have been all kinds of disturbing signs out of Miami, questions about depth, questions about their ability to hold a lead, questions about Wade's ability to play well enough in the playoffs to keep James from needing to rely on Chris Bosh and a highly questionable supporting cast, not much different than his Cleveland days. You know, like 2010, for instance.
My editor argued that you don't bet against LeBron James at this point until he loses. I see her point. But it's not such a crazy notion that you might not want to bet at all, if not on the Nets, in a series against the Heat.
And what about the Pacers, with breakout star Paul George, with the incredibly talented Lance Stephenson, with defensive era definer Roy Hibbert? That would be the Indiana Pacers who recently lost nine of 16 games, whose players are, at the moment, turning on each other, who have the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference since the All Star Break. Seventh! In the East!
I love Hibbert. Paul George may be as exhilarating to watch on both ends of the court as anybody in the NBA. But is it so crazy to envision this Pacers team, the way it is playing right now, losing to the Nets? Or losing before they even get to face the Nets?
Would you bet against the team that's won 15 in a row at home, protecting its home court as well as anyone in the league right now? They keep doing that, all they need to do is steal one game on the road each series.
"We've been playing well at this arena," Nets guard Shaun Livingston said, after shooting 11 for 14 on Friday night. "I think the goal now is to challenge ourselves on the road. Depending on playoff seeding and where we'll have to start, we've got to be a good road team."
That seeding is largely weighed down by that 10-21 start to their season. You know who has a much better record since New Year's Day than the Pacers, or the Heat, or anyone else in the East? That would be the Nets, forced to embrace a different, and ultimately more effective smaller lineup after Lopez's injury. That would be the Nets, with Livingston providing one of the most fascinating and inspirational stories in recent league history, while providing matchup problems for most backcourts.
Deron Williams is back, dunking again. His ORating since the All Star Break is 118. Joe Johnson, unlike last year, isn't playing on one leg. The biggest flaws with last year's team, exploited by the Bulls and Tom Thibodeau in the playoffs, was the consistent playing 5-on-3 offensively, thanks to Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans. That's not how these Nets do it.
Those Nets were a home loss in Game 7 from the second round. They didn't have Pierce, Garnett, Kirilenko, Johnson's other leg, Livingston, Marcus Thornton (who has exploded for more than 20 points in four separate games while you and everybody else weren't paying attention to the Nets), the versatile Alan Anderson, Mason Plumlee, even Jason Collins. And there's no one from that still-solid team last season you can really say they miss.
No one is playing better. No one has more playoff experience in the conference, and specifically, LeBron-beating experience.
But this Nets team had lost three times to the Pistons entering Friday night, including by 16 points on Feb. 7. And this was after Brooklyn had recast itself small, and arguably the reason for the change, given the frontline of the Pistons.
That didn't happen on Friday. The teams played to a 22-22 draw in the first, and then the Nets decided to impose their will on the game, and suddenly it was 51-33, Johnson and Williams and Mirza Teletovic and Pierce and Thornton and Livingston and even Jason Collins on a put-back. The game was all but over, another one ending at Barclays Center like the 14 before. Collins, another recent addition, had six points and five rebounds.
Can a team lose three times to the Pistons and be a contender? The Nets had struggled against big teams, and the Pistons are that idea taken to its logical extreme (if not beyond). But still, can a team lose to Kyle Singler and Brandon Jennings' Pistons three times and be a title contender?
Can a team beat the Heat three times and not be? (And before you point out that the Knicks did it three times last year, it's probably worth remembering how many injuries separated the Opening Night 2012-13 Knicks from the group that ultimately lost in the second round of the playoffs.)
Are you really so sure you want to bet against Pierce and Garnett, not required this time to carry the bulk of the scoring load, Williams, no longer forced to do everything himself, and Joe Johnson, who is healthy now and has made the buzzer-beater into an art form? (Seriously, Google "Joe Johnson buzzer-beater" and notice how many different game stories and videos come up.)
Are you really sure you want to bet on the playoff neophytes in Toronto or Washington to end their season? Or the Bulls, without another chance to play the Nets 5-on-3 every time Williams brings the ball down the court?
You wouldn't think a championship team stood just weeks away from the kind of run that would captivate the country Friday night in Brooklyn from the atmosphere. The crowd was relatively sparse. The Nets fans are still learning precisely how to be a home crowd. It's amazing, really, that the Nets have played so well at home without the kind of noise one associates with, say, that team over in Manhattan.
That was not the case during last year's playoffs, particularly Game 1 against the Bulls. And it's safe to assume the Barclays Center will be plenty loud this time around as well. The fans don't know they are rooting for a legitimate title contender yet. They're still learning how to root, period. How would they know? Who in the media is even telling them?
More ink has been spilled in New York over the past few weeks on what will probably be, ultimately, a single round of futility by the Knicks, should they make the playoffs, than on the Nets, playing the best basketball in the Eastern Conference for three months, and showing no signs of stopping. See the size of the contingent the New York dailies send to MSG and to Barclays, and then guess which team has been elite for months. And you'd guess wrong.
"Maybe it keeps folks from writing about them as a legitimate threat lurking behind a Miami/Indy duopoly that once seemed invincible to the rest of the conference," Appleman said of the Nets' history. "Last year's quick exit doesn't help a general consensus informed in part by a newspaper/sports radio cycle that cares infinitely more about the return of baseball and Knicks-related chaos. The Nets remain, sadly, the New York media's springtime safety school. When you've won 14 in a row at home, that's probably undeserved."
Are we just so used to dismissing the Nets that even the move to Brooklyn hasn't shaken our Nets view of things? Will the Nets be also-rans until the moment they finally topple the Heat or the Pacers in the playoffs, be Chris Morris' sneakers and nothing more?
That team playing better than anyone else for three months just added Kirilenko and Garnett. The best since Jan. 1 is about to get better.
"Let's see," Collins said Friday, chuckling at the thought. "You're adding a Hall of Famer to a basketball team. So I think there's gonna be an impact. I think we're all looking forward to being at full strength, and obviously building for the playoffs."
Are you sure there's much of a gap between the Nets and the Pacers and Heat right now? How about with a healthy Kirilenko and Garnett?
"The biggest thing is just our health," Kidd said Friday. "For us, being healthy, and understanding that everybody's going in the right direction. From there, it's 0-0, and it's the first team to four."
The only chance the Nets have of changing how the city, if not the country, views them is by getting to four a few times. Get to four three times, forget about four, and New York basketball will never be the same, especially with the Knicks a full Phil Jackson rebuild from legitimate contention.
But that can't happen, right? The Nets aren't going to the NBA Finals, are they?
"It's huge," Paul Pierce said of Garnett's return. "Eight games left, so as we make this playoff push, [build] momentum, try to gather the chemistry with him back out there, going into the playoffs. With [Garnett] out there, it makes us even a deeper team."
You still sure you want to bet against them?