By the skin of their teeth.
That’s how the Brooklyn Nets won seven in a row, one month since an ugly leg injury sidelined leading scorer Caris Levert. It was an exhilarating, nail-biting, head-smacking, why-are-they-doing-this-to-me, can’t-the-clock-go-faster sort of winning streak. So when the Indiana Pacers brought the streak to an end Friday night, defeating the Nets 114-106, they exposed how tenuous the Nets’ hold on greatness was…but that 7-0 run nevertheless showed that Brooklyn is building something beautiful that won’t even ruin anyone’s view of the Manhattan skyline.
The one trouble is that since Levert—the Nets’ clutch, playmaking wing—went down, the Nets have struggled to hold a lead. Five of the seven teams they defeated during this run outscored them in the fourth quarter. (It could have been a 9-0 run if the Oklahoma City Thunder hadn’t pounded them with a +20 margin in Q4 Dec. 5.)
Head coach Kenny Atkinson and his team do, nevertheless, deserve credit. Their adjustments and improved play (for three quarters) is delivering Ws.
A gentle schedule helped. Most of the wins came against losing—and I mean loooosing—teams (Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Washington Wizards, ugh). The Nets also, however, squeaked out wins against the surging L.A. Lakers, Philadelphia Sixers and Toronto Raptors by making a few changes.
For example, the Sixers outperformed the Nets in nearly every category, yet lost their game at the free throw line. On their homecourt. By a gap of 25 points.
Brooklyn went 37 of 43 from the stripe that night. Fourteen of those 14 attempts were courtesy of rising star Spencer Dinwiddie (still an impressive eight if you discount Philly’s foul-a-thon scramble in the last two minutes), and the rest of the squad evenly shared the load.
That extra time at the line has been essential. While the Nets’ free throw attempts have jumped to 27.0 during the run (22.6 before Levert’s injury), they’re drawing opponents irresistibly into foul after foul by relentlessly driving to the hoop. It might be some Eurostepping by Rodions Kurucs, a Joe Harris cut with a quick dump to Jarrett Allen, or a drive and kick by point guard D’Angelo Russell.
But the most dominant downhill force has been guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
The restricted area is not restricted to this guy. Since Levert went down, Dinwiddie is scoring more on drives than anyone in the NBA but James Harden and Kawhi Leonard; he leads the NBA in free throws on drives.
Dinwiddie doesn’t need much help from teammates to score. Don’t worry about setting that pick. Just hand him the ball behind the arc and he’ll calmly shed his defender, gracefully swing to the cup, slice through rim protectors and drop in an and-1 layup. Easy-peasy, again and again and again. He’s averaging 24 points per game during the streak and making it look casual.
Toronto and L.A., meanwhile were felled by Brooklyn’s better fast-break defense.
They’ve eased off on their offensive rebounding, instead backing up to limit the fast breaks from those teams that rely on it most. Brooklyn held Toronto to just five fast-break points (they average 18.0 FBPS per game) in the 106-105 victory Dec. 7, and L.A. to 12 (average 20.4 FBPS) in the 115-110 win Dec. 17.
On the other end, they’re crashing the defensive glass, largely thanks to increased minutes for board magnets Ed Davis and Rondae Hollis Jefferson. When Levert was healthy, Brooklyn only successfully wrangled 68.6% of the potential defensive rebounds provided (ranked 28th. During this winning streak, they’re grabbing 77.6% (2nd).
Between this and the fact that coach Kenny Atkinson is fiddling with opponents’ minds by moving from zone defense to man-to-man and back, the Nets have been able to better control the pace of games.
The undefeated streak is officially over, ’tis true, but can the Nets keep racking up enough wins to crank their way into the playoff picture? That depends.
How many giant three balls can Jared Dudley hit in the clutch?
How many driving layups can Dinwiddie sink and stay healthy?
How long will the bench unit run this smoothly?
How many times can Jarrett Allen block Lebron James?!?
Unless the Nets find a way to improve their fourth quarter, they won’t keep stealing these Ws for long. Yet, their schedule remains promisingly hit or miss opponent-wise.
So, let’s enjoy the show while it lasts.
Sara Peters is a 17-year journalist who covers cybersecurity by day, basketball by night. She spent the past four seasons enduring a relentless barrage of losses as a featured New York Knicks columnist for Bleacher Report. She loves driving point guards, passing centers, scrambles for loose balls, buzzer-beating blocks, Allen Iverson, and tearful memories of Drazen Petrovic. Sara lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter @3FromThe7.