Prior to Victor Oladipo’s season-ending quadriceps tendon injury, the Eastern Conference appeared to be a five-team race. While the Indiana Pacers have remained surprisingly frisky sans Oladipo, a brutal upcoming stretch could send them plummeting back to earth, leaving the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics as the favorites to emerge from the East.
Whichever one of those teams draws the Brooklyn Nets in the first round should be nervous.
The Pacers may be nine games ahead of the Nets in the East standings, but they’re far less worrisome without their star. Since the two-time All-Star went down in late January, Indiana is averaging just 110.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks 18th leaguewide over that span. Seeing as the Pacers played only four teams with winning records in those 16 games, that middling offensive output is concerning.
The Nets, meanwhile, are a powder keg ready to explode at a moment’s notice.
Thanks to first-time All-Star D’Angelo Russell, the Nets have a go-to flamethrower in crunch-time situations. During the final five minutes of games in which Brooklyn’s either ahead or behind by no more than five points, Russell is shooting 50 percent (32-of-64), which has him tied with Washington Wizards 2-guard Bradley Beal for the third-best field-goal percentage in the clutch.
On Saturday, Russell poured in 14 points during the fourth quarter alone—he finished with a game-high 40 points on 14-of-31 shooting—to help guide the Nets past the Charlotte Hornets in a game with surprisingly enormous playoff implications.
One week earlier, he single-handedly outscored the Cleveland Cavaliers during triple-overtime, 14-11, in a thrilling 148-139 victory.
Russell’s prodigious talent was on display in prior years, too, but consistency had eluded him until this season. An injury-marred 2017-18 campaign raised legitimate questions as to whether the Nets could count on him as a foundational piece moving forward.
“His talent—nobody in this room or arena will question his talent,” Nets forward DeMarre Carroll prophetically told reporters during his exit interview last spring. “You just want him to do it consistently. D’Angelo is probably the closest thing we have to an All-Star on our team if he did it consistently.”
Russell may be the Nets’ lone All-Star, but he’s hardly the team’s only concerning weapon. Brooklyn also has one of the league’s most lethal snipers in 3-Point Contest champion Joe Harris.
He currently leads the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage this season (47.7 percent), and he’s almost equally potent on catch-and-shoot (48.0 percent) and pull-up (46.9 percent) triples. Harris is only fourth in points per game on the Nets, but his penchant to catch fire from deep—he hit seven triples in the first half alone against the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 11—gives him the ability to single-handedly swing a playoff game down the line.
Sitting between Harris and Russell in 3-point accuracy is Allen Crabbe, who’s become the definition of a long-range specialist in Brooklyn.
A career-high 69.3 percent of Crabbe’s field-goal attempts are coming from beyond the arc, the ninth-highest rate among qualified players leaguewide. His shooting efficiency from deep (39.4 percent) outpaces his overall field-goal percentage (37.3 percent), which speaks to his limitations, but he likewise can get hot from deep and help swing a playoff game.
In large part thanks to Russell, Harris and Crabbe, the Nets rank third leaguewide in 3-point attempts, fifth in made triples and 12th in long-range shooting percentage. That combination of volume and accuracy will make Brooklyn one of the highest-variance threats in the East’s playoff bracket.
The Nets aren’t a one-trick pony, though.
Had Caris LeVert not suffered an early-season ankle injury, he would have been right in the mix for Most Improved Player of the Year. Off to a scorching start, he averaged 20.3 points on 48.9 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 triples and 1.4 steals in only 31.6 minutes over his first 12 games.
LeVert is still rounding back into form after making his return during early February, which is to be expected. But if he’s up to full speed by mid-April, he’ll give the Nets another versatile offensive weapon who could take over if Russell struggles on a given night.
Meanwhile, combo guard Spencer Dinwiddie would have been one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year if not for a long-term injury layoff. He underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb during late January, although he’s set to return Friday. This gives plenty of time to reintegrate him before the playoffs begin.
Dinwiddie is currently the Nets’ second-leading scorer, averaging 17.2 points on 46.1 percent shooting, 5.0 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 2.0 triples in only 28.6 minutes. Much like Russell, he has a flair for the dramatic: He’s hit five shots within the last 30 seconds of a game in which Brooklyn trailed by no more than three. That puts him into a tie with Kyrie Irving for the most such buckets leaguewide.
Against the Houston Rockets in mid-January, Dinwiddie single-handedly erased a six-point deficit during the final 30 seconds with three straight triples. The Nets went on to win in overtime, 145-142.
While Brooklyn’s backcourt will largely determine how far this team advances in the playoffs, its frontcourt is no joke, either.
Carroll, who was a member of the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in 2014-15, brings veteran know-how and playoff experience to the rotation. After starting in all 73 appearances last season, he’s come off the bench for all 50 of his games this year. Nonetheless, he’s settled in as a versatile wing defender and occasional 3-point threat.
The same goes for Jared Dudley, who’s slowly working his way back from a hamstring strain that sidelined him for the month leading into the All-Star break. He isn’t likely to swing a playoff game like Russell, Harris, LeVert or Dinwiddie might, but Dudley can give the Nets 15 or so minutes of well-rounded play off the bench.
“You don’t have to worry about me. You’ve got guys like Caris [LeVert] and then Spencer [Dinwiddie],” Dudley said last week, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post. “It’s easy for me to fit in. My role can vary. But I just know that when I’m out there, I always feel like the team is better.”
To wit: Of Brooklyn’s five-man lineups that have appeared together in at least 10 games, Dudley is in all five of the most effective based on net rating.
Manning the middle, the Nets have second-year center Jarrett Allen and veteran journeyman Ed Davis, each of whom brings different strengths to the table. The former ranks top-15 leaguewide in both field-goal percentage (57.6) and blocks per game (1.6), while the latter has the third-best rebounding percentage (21.8) of anyone who has appeared in at least 10 games.
Put all that together and you have the recipe for a potential first-round upset.
The Nets do have some exploitable weaknesses, of course. As Mike Prada of SB Nation noted, they struggled to beat the Washington Wizards’ switch-everything defense Wednesday, which could be a concern in the playoffs. While Brooklyn’s sixth in free-throw rate as a team, Russell averages only 2.5 trips to the free-throw line, a surprisingly low number for a lead ball-handler.
Brooklyn’s defense is also nothing to fear. The Nets allow more points per 100 possessions (109.6) than they score (109.2), and they concede a team-worst 7.5 additional points per 100 possessions with Allen on the floor. A bruising big man such as the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid or the Toronto Raptors’ Marc Gasol should be able to have his way against the Nets’ undersized frontcourt, which could be the X-factor in a playoff series.
The Nets are likely to be underdogs regardless of who they draw in the first round. But if their opponent takes them lightly and prematurely looks ahead to the conference semifinals, that would lay the seeds for something scary.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.