Riding a four-game winning streak, the Nets have become the hottest team in the Eastern Conference.
But is it real, or is it a mirage? Is it just a streak, or is it sustainable?
With a more difficult stretch of the schedule looming, they’re about to find out.
“That’s a good question,” Kyrie Irving said. “We’re just going to do our everyday, do our jobs at the end of the season and things are clicking hopefully. I don’t want to say hopefully: They will be clicking. We just have to put in the work.
“Whether it’s sustainable or not, we have to prove that to ourselves every time we lace them up, every time we come in the locker room, every time we prepare. We know what the job is: Go handle it.”
They didn’t handle it at the start of the season when faced with a grueling stretch that cost Steve Nash his job. They’ve been the aggressor under Jacque Vaughn, albeit more diligent than dominant. The Nets have seemed more process-oriented than last season, taking eight of their last nine to vault up to fourth in the East.
“Man, let’s just go win ballgames. That’s it. That’s really what the attitude is,” Irving said, adding with no small amount of irony, “no more excuses. No more distractions. No more just throwing in these surprise injuries. We want everyone to be healthy, everybody to have fun and come in playing their game.”
Irving was unquestionably the Nets’ biggest distraction last season, missing two-thirds of the campaign over his refusal to adhere to New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Ben Simmons didn’t play a second due to back and mental health issues. And the distractions just kept coming.
There was Kevin Durant’s offseason trade request and attempt to get Nash fired, followed by Irving’s eight-game suspension after refusing to apologize for promoting an anti-Semitic movie. But they’ve weathered those storms.
It’s been easier with Brooklyn (17-12) catching a break from the schedule, something even they acknowledge. They benefitted from a season-long seven-game homestand, playing teams that were both middling and shorthanded.
Brooklyn went 6-1, with all but one of the victories by single digits. Having Durant and Irving made the difference in those tight endgames, but they lost to the only elite foe they faced, had just one other playoff opponent and feasted on three lottery teams. Portland’s Damian Lillard, Boston’s Robert Williams III and Marcus Smart, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball, Atlanta’s John Collins and Orlando’s Mo Bamba were all out.
“Favorable schedule, being at home for seven of those. Being able to wake up in our own beds and have our own routine at home definitely matters,” Durant said. “We also faced a couple of teams that were missing some guys, as well.
“But for the most part, I liked the brand of basketball we played on both ends of the floor, regardless of who was on the court. We still played our system and we did the things we wanted to out there on both ends. So yeah, being at home counts. Having everybody back healthy counts. So we just want to keep plugging away.”
That’s what the Nets will need to do. While they have the sixth-easiest schedule the rest of the season (.491 winning percentage, per Tankathon), the immediate future isn’t so simple.
Starting Friday in Toronto, their next five games will include the defending champs (Golden State) along with the second (Milwaukee) and third (Cleveland) seeds in the East. Stretch that out to 12 games, and eight are on the road and add the top seeds in both the East (Boston) and West (New Orleans).
They see the key to sustaining this momentum as a simple one:
“The effort we play with on the defensive side of the ball. We figured out what type of team we want to be on that side of the ball,” Durant said.
“I’ll continue to talk about the consistency of playing hard,” Vaughn said. “That’s our next challenge.”
A challenge that gets harder over the next dozen games.
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