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NBA PM: Nets Continue Hot Streak

The Brooklyn Nets are heating up and seem poised to make the playoffs after struggling earlier in the year.

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Nets Continue Hot Streak

During the course of any given season, teams will go through hot streaks and then they’ll suffer through cold snaps. Some hot streaks come at better times than others, while some slumps come at the worst parts of the season.

Less than four weeks ago, the Brooklyn Nets found themselves in an unlikely slump with the clock quickly running out on the 2014-15 regular season. Their playoff hopes were dwindling with each loss as the team sat at 23-33 with a number of tough match-ups ahead on the schedule.

Then, on February 28, the Nets defeated the Dallas Mavericks on the road and then followed that game up with a 110-108 win against the Golden State Warriors. It seemed like Brooklyn would turn things around and gain some momentum. But just as quickly as they flipped the switch to play well, they flipped it right back off.

After posting wins over two of the best teams in the Western Conference, the Nets would go on to lose their next five games to fall to 11th in the Eastern Conference standings – three and a half games out of the final playoff spot.

The idea of potentially playing in the postseason seemed highly unlikely given the long losing streak. While they were yet to be mathematically eliminated from the postseason, many began to give up hope on the Nets making the playoffs for a third consecutive season and started to write off their season.

What a difference 14 games makes.

Nearly four weeks after the Miami HEAT handed the Nets their fifth consecutive loss, the Nets are coming off of a 106-96 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night and are slowly pulling away from the other four teams vying for the final two playoff spots in the East. The Nets have won nine of 11 games to bring their record to 36-41. That puts them in seventh place in the East and gives them a one-game lead over the eighth-placed Boston Celtics and a two-game lead over the Indiana Pacers and HEAT, who occupy spots nine and 10 in the standings.

“We realize that we’re just as good as any team and we can play and go out there and win games,” Nets forward Thaddeus Young told reporters. “We have a lot of good players on this team. Guys have had confidence since day one. We feel like we can beat anybody on any given night. With the guys that we have in this room, we’re going to go to war each and every day. We just got to keep playing, keep focusing in and it starts on the defense. If we can’t get stops then it’s going to be hard for us to win games.”

Despite the five-game skid the team suffered less than a month ago, the Nets have secured the eighth-best record in the NBA since the All-Star break and only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics have posted better records from the East in that time frame. The Nets have gone 15-10 since the break and are 11-3 since that losing streak.

The team has posted the eighth-best offensive rating since the All-Star break and have been energized by the arrival of Young. The Nets acquired Young from the Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline in exchange for Kevin Garnett. The trade allowed Garnett to reunite with the team that drafted him and it gave the Nets a scoring punch to make a run down the stretch of the season.

In 23 games for the Nets, Young has averaged 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. In addition, he’s shooting a career-best 40.5 percent from three-point range during his short stint in Brooklyn.

“He has picked up things pretty easily,” point guard Deron Williams said on Young’s arrival. “We’re still getting better but he’s been a great addition to this team, there’s no doubt about that. He’s giving us a different dimension scoring the ball and just energy-wise. He’s been great for us.”

“Thad has been so great for us since the deadline,” center Brook Lopez told reporters of Young. [He’s] a jack of all trades – getting loose balls, steals, offensive rebounds. He’s been doing everything for us.”

Acquiring Young has also led to the improvement of Williams. Nets head coach Lionel Hollins has pointed out that the arrival of Young has led to the team playing a faster pace that suits Williams best. Since being paired up with Young after the All-Star break, Williams has made incremental improvements in scoring, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and assists per game. His three-point shooting has improved from 36.9 percent to 40.9 percent and he’s averaging one full assist more per game versus before the break.

“I think the trade for Thaddeus Young gives us a little more versatility,” Hollins told WFAN in New York. “[It gives us] a little more quickness and putting Markel Brown in the starting lineup has contributed to us playing at a different pace, especially early. Deron is a good high-pace player. He likes to push the ball, he likes to probe, to explore early. I think with the added quickness around him, he’s been able to do that and we’ve been able to be effective with that.”

Perhaps the biggest explanation for the Nets’ sudden improvement is players are finally healthy. Lopez has been arguably the best player for the Nets in recent weeks. Lopez played in just 17 games last season after suffering a broken foot early in the season. He’s beginning to play near 100 percent and his recent play has proved that he’s nearly at full strength. This week Lopez became the first player of the season to be named the NBA Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks after posting 20.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and two blocks in four games last week. Lopez has been exceptional for the Nets since the All-Star break as he’s scored at least 30 points in six outings since the break versus just one 30-point outing before the break.

“I just think that with Brook and Deron they’re both healthier,” Hollins told reporters. “As the season has gone on they’ve gotten more confidence in what they can and can’t do. Brook has stepped up [and] Deron has stepped up. We’re just playing consistent basketball together and we got a ways to go. We’re trying to close the door on those other teams and the only way you can do that is by winning and that’s what our goal is.”

The Nets have certainly been playing some of the best basketball in the league as of late, but their goal to make the playoffs is still an uphill battle. While they’ve posted some impressive wins over the Trail Blazers, Raptors, Cavaliers and Bucks in recent weeks, they have one of the hardest schedules remaining out of teams chasing the playoffs as four out of their final five games are against playoff teams.

The team reiterates on a daily basis that they’re taking it one game at a time and won’t look ahead until the regular season is over. It’s clear that if the team can make it through the final five games into the playoffs, they’ll be one of the hottest teams going in and could be a serious challenge for one of the top teams in the conference.

Derrick Rose Nearing Return

Sunday’s loss against the Cavaliers marked the 20th game that Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose has missed. Since Rose underwent surgery in February to repair a torn right medial meniscus, his timetable to return was four-to-six weeks but Rose admitted that he’d return when he felt right and wouldn’t rush back to play.

During an in-game interview on ABC, Rose gave a more concrete timeline to return when he told Lisa Salters that he’ll “probably” return sometime this week. The Bulls will travel to Florida to take on the Magic and HEAT on back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday before returning home to play the 76ers on Saturday.

“Each week he’s gone through each phase of the rehab,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s progressed well. He hasn’t had any setbacks. The next step is to play in the games. As soon as he’s comfortable to do that, we’ll get started with that.”

Rose has been participating in full-contact practices for a week now and went through a practice and scrimmage on Monday. The biggest concern for Rose moving forward has been his conditioning and has been described as a “work in progress” by Thibodeau.

The Bulls are currently in third place in the East by just one game over the fourth-placed Raptors with five games remaining in the regular season. Despite the slim lead over the Raptors, the team doesn’t seem to be rushing Rose back in order to help them lock up the third seed. The Bulls will try to get Rose up to speed as much as they can before the playoffs in order to have him as ready as possible. Once Rose does return, he likely won’t see heavy minutes immediately.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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