Hoping for the Deron of Old

Here we go again…or at least that’s how it feels.

With the series deadlocked at two games apiece, tonight’s pivotal Game 5 between the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre could determine who will eventually advance to the next round. As noted prior to the series, the most significant matchup I felt was between the two point guards – Deron Williams and Kyle Lowry. In the games in which the Nets have won so far, Williams has asserted himself and dictated the flow of the game. Unfortunately, Nored  (the bizarro Deron) has also made an appearance in this series. [Which Passport is Williams Bringing?]

Although the statistics are virtually identical throughout the first four games, there just seems to be a difference between the type of impact Williams and Lowry bring to the court. By simply looking at the tale of the tape, you would assume that Williams would win this matchup; however, what Lowry lacks in physical attributes, he is able to make up with non-quantifiable intangibles. Lowry plays bigger than his 6-foot, 205 pound frame, as he attacks the basket and fights for rebounds. What’s more impressive is that he has been hobbled by injuries and is still producing.

Player PPG APG FG% RPG
Williams 17.8 5.5 39.3 2.0
Lowry 18.3 5.0 40.0 5.5

As a Net fan, I am actually jealous of what the Raptor fan base has in their point guard. Lowry’s gritty, blue-collar style emanates heart and passion to the rest of his teammates. He knows exactly how to play to and electrify the crowd.  Lowry seems to embrace the underdog role and doesn’t back down from anyone guarding him or the spotlight.  His opponent on the other side of the court appears to consistently flip-flop between being aggressive and uncertain.

deron illinois

His leadership at the collegiate level almost made him a champion.

Is Deron simply not a leader? This has appeared to be the case since the move to Brooklyn, but if you consider his track record dating back to college, his floor generalship (or lack thereof) in a Nets’ uniform contradicts what he once demonstrated.   This is what has made his tenure with the Nets so maddening.

During his junior season at the University of Illinois, Williams helped lead The Fighting Illini to the 2005 National Championship Game where they eventually lost to the University of North Carolina. His team, which also featured Dee Brown and Luther Head, began the season 29-0 and ended up with a record of 37 wins with only two defeats. Brown earned first team All-American honors, whereas Williams and Head both were named to the second team.

Some may forget that in the Elite Eight matchup with the University of Arizona, the Illini found themselves trailing by 15 points in the final four minutes. It was Williams who led the comeback to force overtime and eventually win. Against a stronger North Carolina opponent in the title game, it was Williams and Head who rallied Illinois back from a big halftime deficit before coming up short in the end.

Following the impressive tournament run, Williams entered the NBA Draft and was selected third overall by the Utah Jazz. By his second season in Utah, the Jazz had clearly found their replacement for John Stockton.

Under their new point guard’s leadership, the Jazz compiled a 206-122 regular season record from 2006-2010. In addition, they experienced great success during that four-year period in the postseason, mostly due in part to Williams’s performance. The peak for the Jazz during those postseasons was advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2007 before losing to San Antonio.

Postseason Games Played PPG APG FG%
2007 17 19.2 8.6 45.2
2008 12 21.6 10.0 49.2
2009 10 24.3 10.2 45.0
2010 5 20.2 10.8 41.4

Interestingly, three of the four teams that defeated them went on to win the title – Spurs (2007), Lakers (2009 & 2010). The Laker team which eliminated Utah in the 2008 semifinals ultimately lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals.

So what was the point of bringing up all of this history?

Clearly Deron Williams has proven that he can be successful and lead his teams beyond the first round. Those Utah teams featured a talented roster, but keep in mind that he was early in his career and never had the supporting cast that surrounds him now in Brooklyn.

In last year’s postseason he played admirably against the Chicago Bulls evident by the following statistics during that seven game series:

PPG APG FG%
20.6 8.4 42.5

The obvious blemish was that his team failed to advance past an opponent who was decimated by injuries and reliant on inferior talent. Having the home court advantage in that decisive seventh game went for naught and the season ended in disappointment. Being the leader of the team, the onus fell mostly on Deron Williams as he was the quarterback of that Nets team and that position assumes the responsibility for both the good and the bad.

Deron once showed that he can carry an NBA team deep into the playoffs.

Deron has showed already that he can carry an NBA team deep into the playoffs.

With the exception of the first half of Game 1, most of this series against Toronto has featured the Deron who Brooklyn fans feared would show up. Whether it was the missing those two late free throws in Game 3 or failing to execute a fluid fourth quarter offense in Game 4, Williams is once again showing that he may not be fit to lead this team deep into this postseason.

When you shell out a maximum contract for a player in professional sports, there is a certain level of consistent production expected. These players are supposed to be your building blocks – your foundation – your constants. Surely everyone has an off night, but it just seems that these mishaps always seem to find Deron Williams.

For 98 million dollars, the Nets organization believed that they were buying a reliable franchise player to lead them towards a championship. As of this moment in time, Williams may just be the most expensive x-factor in all of sports. [The Little Engine That Should].

Trust me when I say that I do not take pride in writing about this topic one bit.

Even with a supremely talented roster from top to bottom, equipped with championship experience, the fate of the Brooklyn Nets still lies in the hands of the same player who once lead his collegiate team to the national title game and his former NBA team deep into the post season.

There isn’t a lot of time for Deron to figure this thing out. His team needs him to bring his A-game from here on out consistently, not intermittently. He’ll say the right things off the court about “needing to play better”, but it’s time for Deron to let his game do the talking.

After all, actions always speak louder than words.

 

 

 

 

What’s Really at Stake for the Brooklyn Nets

I recently appeared on the Robin Lundberg show on ESPN Radio New York (98.7 FM) as his “Fanalyst” and debated with him the relevancy of the Brooklyn Nets franchise.

The Robin Lundberg Show    (about 43 minutes in)

My main argument to him was that the New York media as a whole has not given the Nets the respect that they deserve. All attention has been paid to the arrival of Phil Jackson, his drama with owner James Dolan, and the speculation as to whether Carmelo Anthony will remain with the New York Knicks’ organization. Coverage of the Nets has seemed like a mere blurb in comparison. I get that this is predominately a “Knick-town” and these are juicy items to discuss, but should the bulk of radio shows’ content be dedicated to a dysfunctional franchise that is currently not playing meaningful basketball?

On the other hand, we have an organization that currently features two future Hall of Fame players in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as well as All-Star talents in Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. When asked, Lundberg agreed that if the Knicks were in the current situation as the Nets (with the same players) there would be significant buzz dominating the airwaves throughout the city.

Imagine the publicity the Knicks would get with this type of star power.

Imagine the publicity the Knicks would get with this type of star power.

Lundberg’s final opinion on the situation was that the relevancy and interest in the Brooklyn Nets is still growing. This is still just the first round, and what will help them most will be a second round matchup with the Miami Heat. If they were to make noise or even pull off the upset in that series, the growing process, both nationally and (more important) locally, would be accelerated.

Well, with the chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead against the Toronto Raptors, the Nets let their fan base down. Despite falling behind by as many as 17 points in the first half, the Nets clawed their way out of the massive hole to find themselves with the lead during the early moments of the third quarter. With the Raptors clearly rattled and unable to execute their offense, the Nets were in prime position to stretch their lead and deliver the knockout blow.

During the same time that Toronto missed their first seven field goal attempts and 14 of 15, Brooklyn saw their fundamental skills abandon them. The Nets shot an unacceptable six of twelve from the free throw line, which made me wonder if Mr. Whammy was secretly working for the enemy. They also committed six turnovers during the quarter.

That's not Raptors' red under that Brooklyn jersey, is it?

That’s not Raptors’ red under that Brooklyn jersey, is it?

Although the game was tied entering the fourth quarter, things just didn’t feel right. As we know, basketball is a game of runs and a team can quickly recapture their shooting touch. As the Raptors were unraveling during the third frame, the largest deficit they faced was five points. Failure to build upon that two-possession lead came back to haunt them as it allowed Toronto to hang around until they regained their composure. It was a golden opportunity for the Nets and they squandered it.

Now it is a best of three series with Toronto having the home court edge. The Nets have already proven in this series that they can go into the Air Canada Centre and come out victorious, but it won’t be an easy feat from here on out. Credit the Toronto fans for creating one of the most hostile environments for visiting teams. With thousands of people intensely cheering inside and outside of the arena makes it feel as if an entire nation is behind them, like what was depicted in Rocky IV.

With the Raptors evening up the series, I would expect the fans to be even more rabid than usual now that their team will host two of the next three games, if necessary, with the opportunity of advancing to the next round. The Nets have created this situation for themselves and will now have to show whether they have the intestinal fortitude to survive and advance.

Some fans are holding onto the hope that experience will prevail over youth and athleticism. It took a game but the Raptors have seemed to overcome their playoff jitters. Although there is championship experience on this Nets’ roster, there is also talent whose post-season experiences have resulted in underachievement and disappointment.

I know Pierce and Garnett will be ready for the challenge and expect Johnson to be cool under the pressure, but as usual the fate of the Nets hinges upon the performance of Williams. A first round exit for these Brooklyn Nets would be devastating to a fan base that was expecting a deep playoff run following all of the positivity once the calendar flipped to 2014.

The time is now for the Nets to seize the moment. Lundberg was right when he said that Nets have the arena and the uniforms, now they need the basketball team. If they ever want to take over this city, it starts in these playoffs. After letting down the borough last year on their home court against the Chicago Bulls, the Nets have a chance to make good on their slogan “For Brooklyn”.

Will this signature moment have gone for naught if the Nets don't advance to the 2nd round?

Will this signature moment have gone for naught if the Nets don’t advance to the 2nd round?

A lot will be at stake for the Nets over these next few days. If they desire to one day be equals with their Manhattan rivals, then they can’t come up short once again.

In life, you only one chance to make a first impression and consecutive postseason failures may just be too damaging to their Brooklyn brand.

They may never get this opportunity again.

A Riches to Rags to Riches Story?

What is it about this 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets team that makes them so likable?

In all of my years following them, there is only one other team that captured my heart the way this team has – the 2001-02 squad. Surely you remember that team. It was the year that Jason Kidd first arrived in East Rutherford and led the transformation from perennial losers to league contenders. They were the ultimate “rags to riches” story, as the team doubled their win total from 26 the year prior.

Not exactly a team of superstars.

Not exactly a team of superstars.

Everything about that season was magical, as the Nets got off to a 7-1 start and never looked back. Whether it was the overtime victory in Utah, the 34 home win against Sacramento, or beating the Spurs in San Antonio, the regular season was highlighted by signature wins that Nets fans weren’t accustomed to seeing. For the first time in a long time, the Nets proved that they could compete with the likes of Karl Malone, Chris Webber, and Tim Duncan led teams.

Although Kidd was a superstar player, the rest of the roster was comprised of players that never really tasted success at the NBA level. What made this team so special was that Kidd was able to maximize everyone’s potential and put them in a position to be successful. For this reason, any given night could feature a different star of the game. Over time it wasn’t much of a surprise to see unlikely heroes in Aaron Williams, Todd MacCulloch, or Lucious Harris leading the way to victory.

The Nets of that 2001-02 season played a brand of basketball that was fun and exciting. They got out and ran the fast break better than anyone. The unselfish play of Kidd grew contagious, as players went out of their way to make the extra pass. They epitomized what “team basketball” was all about.

As the Nets entered the postseason with a 52-30 record and the top seed in the Eastern Conference, some critics doubted their ability to advance deep into the playoffs. I recall some pundits predicting that the 8th seeded Pacers would eliminate them. Those prognostications seemed to be on their way to becoming true, when Indiana stole the home court advantage in Game 1.

How many teams would have overcome this kick to the nuts?

How many teams would have overcome this kick to the nuts?

A resilient bunch evened the series on the road to force a decisive Game 5 (yes, the opening round was a best of five series back then) in the Meadowlands. A heart pounding game from start to finish saw regulation end on a Reggie Miller miracle three pointer to force overtime. The Nets survived that blow and ultimately prevailed in double overtime, 120-109.

After once again losing the home court edge in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, the Nets found themselves with a 21 point cushion entering the fourth quarter and an opportunity to take a 2-1 lead in the series. In one of the greatest meltdowns in playoff history, Boston outscored New Jersey by 25 and stole the victory. Left for dead by all in the sports world, the Nets showed their true character by winning the next three games, two of which were on the road, to advance to the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately the clock struck midnight on the Nets when they met the two-time defending champion Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Nets had no answer for either Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal, as Los Angeles swept them in convincing fashion. Although it was a disappointing end to the season, the year as a whole was something Nets fan wouldn’t trade for anything.

 

Back to the 2013-14 Nets – not exactly the “rags to riches” story, but maybe they are.

No, I haven’t been drinking! Think about how this season started. When all of the prized acquisitions were made by Billy King, everyone (including myself) was envisioning total domination once the chemistry formed. Forget 50, this super team was destined for 60 wins. How could it not? So what if Miami had a “Big Three”, no one had ever seen what a “Big Five” was capable of doing.

What they were capable of doing throughout the first 31 games of the regular season was embarrass themselves in epic fashion. A noncompetitive spirit, resulting in routine lopsided losses, reached its lowest moment when Brook Lopez broke his foot during a humiliating loss to the lowly Sixers. With the season spiraling out of control, disgruntled fans called for the dismantling of the team’s roster and the firing of Kidd.

brook lopez foot

What appeared to be the knockout blow.

When you spend over 180 million dollars on payroll and taxes, no one is eager to offer sympathy when you’re in turmoil. In fact many cherished watching the most expensive team in NBA history sink towards the bottom of the Atlantic Division. For a team that was too talented to fail, they resembled something along the lines of the Titanic.

A funny thing happened as the Nets resurrected their season – they became a group that’s perhaps as likable as that Kidd-led team. Think about it for a second. Who has been the group of players that have helped fuel the turnaround? It certainly wasn’t our sole representative from last season’s All-Star Game, and it definitely hasn’t been our franchise point guard. Our intense Hall of Fame center has played a part of it, but for most of the season, he has either been hurt or working a part-time schedule.

The group that I am talking about are the six players who earn just over ten million dollars. Ask yourself this – would the Nets have salvaged their season without the development and contributions of Shaun Livingston, Andrei Kirilenko, Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic, Andray Blatche, and Alan Anderson? Clearly Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce have been the focal points on offense, but these players have done a tremendous job filling various roles that make a team successful.

Fans haven't seen this type of energy above the rim since that Bad Ass Yellow Boy.

Fans haven’t seen this type of energy above the rim since that Bad Ass Yellow Boy.

Although cynics will sneer at the inflated payroll that Mikhail Prokhorov has to pay, this group has given us an underdog feel – just like that 2001-02 Nets team. Both Livingston and Kirilenko are the types who seem to greatly impact a game without putting up gaudy statistics. Sound familiar? If it does, then you clearly remember how Kidd, the player, could dominate a game with a stat line of 5 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists.

Plumlee is that exciting, high-flyer that we haven’t seen don a Nets’ uniform since Kenyon Martin. Written off as a bust, Teletovic has carved out a role with his ability to stretch the floor from the power forward position, just like that kid from the University of Utah who wore the geeky, high socks. Although he is often times underappreciated, Anderson does provide solid defense and bench scoring, like Harris.

Looking at the balance sheet doesn’t tell the entire story of these Nets.  You cannot deny how much this modern day team has overcome. They were left for dead by everyone after that dreadful 31 game start, and here they stand now with a chance to make some noise in these playoffs.

Considering how they looked before it all began, to where they were going, to where they are headed now, they just may be a “riches to rags to riches” story.

 

 

 

 

 

Which Passport is Williams Bringing?

So it looks like many fans of the Brooklyn Nets got exactly what they wanted- a first round date with the Toronto Raptors.  Obviously this is a more talented group representing the borough in this year’s playoffs, as a second round meeting with the Miami Heat seems inevitable.  If you read my most recent post, [Noooooooo Canada? ] then you are well aware of my concerns of facing the Atlantic Division Champions.

There are many key matchups that will factor into how this series will play out.  The ability of Andrei Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston to defend the athletic duo of DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross will be as important as the Brooklyn front line being as physical as Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson.  Although these matchups will be crucial, the individual battle between point guards Deron Williams and Kyle Lowry is perhaps the one that will determine which team advances to the next round.

Will this match up determine who advances?

Will this match up determine who advances?

Yes, this Nets team has shifted its leadership to Paul Pierce; however, when it all boils down to it, the success of the team still hinges upon Williams’s performance.  For that reason, a lot is at stake for him.

When he signed his maximum contract to remain with the organization, it was his decision to become the face of the franchise.  Years from now, will his name and face be remembered for the right or wrong reasons in the minds of Net fans?

As it has already been documented, his level of performance has taken a serious dip in comparison to his playing days with the Utah Jazz.  His averages this season in scoring (14.3 ppg) and assists (6.1 apg) are his lowest since his rookie year (10.8 & 4.5).  It’s not the declining numbers that have been so frustrating, but the lack of will and fight within.  Nets’ fans are too accustomed to seeing Deron hobble around, wince in pain, hang his head, or shrug his shoulders when things don’t seem to be going his way.  For a “superstar” talent, too many underwhelming efforts are turned in.

Fans are sick of watching as well.

An early exit could doom his legacy in Brooklyn.

One has to wonder how damaging a lackluster performance will be to Williams’s legacy in Brooklyn if the team is eliminated in this opening round – especially if he doesn’t play well.  Pierce and Kevin Garnett may be the heart and soul, but Deron is still the brain and life blood of the team.  He is the one who has the ball in his hands and runs the offense.  His decisions seem to have the greatest impact on the outcome of the game.

Even though it was seven years ago, Williams has already demonstrated in his career that he can put a team on his back and carry them deep into the postseason.  During the 2007 playoffs, he helped lead Utah to the Western Conference Finals before bowing out to the eventual league champion, San Antonio Spurs.

In that postseason, Williams averaged 19.2 points and 8.6 assists per game while battling with Tony Parker and Baron Davis.  Despite the fact that his team was eliminated in five games during the conference finals, Williams did produce averages of 25.8 points and 7.8 assists per game against the eventual champs.  Would you call those numbers “superstar” quality?  I certainly would!

So where did that guy go?  Have we just been watching “Nored” the past few seasons? You know, the bizarro Deron.  How else can you explain the schizophrenic play on the court?

If there was a bizarro Superman, why can't there be one for Deron?

If there was a bizarro Superman, why can’t there be one for Deron?

Nored is the guy who avoids taking over the game and consistently gets outplayed by lesser talented point guards.  He makes little effort to defend his opponent.  Nored was the guy who missed those two free throws late against the Heat recently, which almost cost the team a victory.  He makes inexcusable decisions too frequently.  It was he who botched that inbounds pass against the Raptors, which led to that crushing defeat.  Nored is the guy who doesn’t seem to hold himself accountable for anything and finds any excuse when convenient.

Although the Nets and Raptors split the regular season series, Williams only appeared in the last two contests, both in Brooklyn.  In case you weren’t aware, both Deron and Nored were on full display during those games.

In the Raptors’ 104-103 victory, Lowry showed that in DeRozan’s absence, he could shoulder the scoring load and take over the game.  When the going got tough, Nets Nation witnessed Deron  Nored choke under the pressure by throwing away that inbounds pass in the final seconds.  A secure lead was squandered, and the hangover triggered a losing streak.

Here are the statistics from that January 27th game:

Players

Points

Assists

Steals

Turnovers

Lowry

31

7

5

4

Nored

9

11

1

3

In the Nets’ 101-97 victory, Brooklyn found themselves trailing by double digits early in the first half but rallied to defeat their divisional foes.  At first glance, it appeared that Lowry was the better point guard on that night, but Deron facilitated an offense which saw five players reach double figures in scoring.  This game also marked one of the few times during his brief tenure with the organization where he displayed a genuine passion. The Nets held off the Raptors surge and the feel good victory carried over into the next game when Brooklyn went down to South Beach and defeated a motivated Miami team.

Check out the numbers from that March 10th victory:

Players

Points

Assists

Steals

Turnovers

Lowry

21

7

2

4

Deron

18

5

1

1

 

In last year’s playoff series with the Chicago Bulls, the Nets saw Nate Robinson bully their backcourt.  Lowry is similar to Robinson in that he’s the type of player who plays with tremendous passion and energy.  He will most likely get under the skin of the Net players as well as the fan base.  He plays with the hunger that Net fans could only dream Deron consistently had.

A swagger and passion Net fans aren't used to seeing.

A welcoming sight for Net fans everywhere.

So when Lowry goes to take Deron’s lunch money, will the Nets’ guard stand his ground or shy away from the confrontation?   Usually your franchise player isn’t supposed to be your “x-factor” but this is the unfortunate reality that the Nets have had to live with.

Williams has a chance to fix his reputation with a strong showing in these playoffs. That opportunity begins this Saturday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre.  The question is: whose passport will be getting stamped as the Nets are passing through customs – Deron or Nored’s?

Nooooooo Canada?

As the Brooklyn Nets embark on their 2014 playoff run, many fans are clinging to the hope that they will get an opportunity to face the Toronto Raptors in the opening round. The general consensus is that the neophyte status of the Atlantic Division Champions will be their Achilles Heel and that the Nets’ postseason experience will prove to be the difference maker.

If you proclaimed that the Raptors would fall off during the second half of the season, then you were clearly left with egg on your face. We all know how the Nets turned their season around once the calendar flipped to 2014, but during that same time period Toronto has compiled a 33-18 record. They have kept pace with the Nets and never faltered, with notable wins against Houston, Golden State, Indiana (twice), Dallas, and of course the Nets. Were you aware that the Raptors were 14-15 on New Year’s Eve and now stand to win 49 games?   I would say that’s pretty impressive, right?

As noted in one of my more recent posts, [The Nets Now Know That “There is No Tomorrow” ] I prefer facing the Chicago Bulls as opposed to our neighbors to the North. I realize that I am in the minority here, but my feelings of uneasiness are due to the overall makeup of the Raptor team. From watching the Nets closely all season long, they tend to struggle with teams that are athletic and/or big. The Raptors possess both of these qualities, and although we split the season series with them, Toronto has the ability to create a lot of match up problems.

Valanciunas's size may be problematic for the Nets on both offense and defense.

Valanciunas’s size may be problematic for the Nets on both offense and defense.

As for size, Raptors’ starters Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson are the big, physical types that the Nets do not match up well with, especially when Kevin Garnett is out of the game. In Brooklyn’s 104-103 regular season loss to Toronto on January 27, Valanciunas showed how dominant he could be in route to a 20 point, 13 rebound performance. The Nets inability to rebound well and defend the paint could be a major disadvantage in a playoff series.

In terms of athleticism, there aren’t too many teams in the NBA that are as athletic on the perimeter. Toronto’s All Star DeMar DeRozan, who has averaged over 22 points per game, and Terrence Ross would be a challenge for the Nets to defend. Ross can be inconsistent at times, but don’t forget that he can stretch the floor with his three point shooting and can go off at any moment, like when he scored 51 points earlier this season against the Clippers.  A healthy Andrei Kirilenko will help, but you’d have to worry about Joe Johnson and Marcus Thornton.

The Raptors are a tough, gritty bunch and much of that stems from the heart of their leader, Kyle Lowry. In his four games against the Nets this season, he has averaged 22 points and 6 assists while shooting exactly 50% from the field (30 out of 60). As he showed in that January 27th contest, in which he scored 31 points, he has the ability to wreak havoc, score efficiently, and get inside the head of Deron Williams. To me, he has a little Nate Robinson in him and if Williams isn’t up to the challenge to match his intensity, the Nets will lose this pivotal match up.  This could determine who advances to the next round.

Will Deron be able to match Lowry's intensity?

Will Deron be able to match Lowry’s intensity?

Finally, Toronto has a deep roster. When general manager, Masai Ujiri dealt Rudy Gay to Sacramento, the formula was very similar to the one he used when he traded Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Obviously, the other team was getting the most talented player in the deal, but in return he acquired a collection of players that could fill various roles. By trading away Gay, he not only alleviated Toronto from Gay’s contract, but in the process he built a very solid bench featuring Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, and Patrick Patterson.

The Raptors are well coached under Dwane Casey, who definitely deserves consideration for the coach of the year honor. For a team that seemed to be overachieving early on and playing with a cloud of doubt over their heads for much of the season (as rumored Lowry deals loomed), he kept things together.

Toronto scores 101.3 points per game (13th overall) and allows just 98 (7th overall). They are top ten in both offensive rating (9th) and defensive rating (10th). Chicago, on the other hand, averages 93.6 (30th) but allows 91.8 (1st) points per game. They are 28th in offensive rating, but the second best in defensive rating.

No matter how you slice it, either of these teams will be a difficult challenge for the Nets. Could Toronto’s inexperience create jitters in Game 1? It’s possible, but once the series gets going, I expect those nerves to subside.

This isn’t last year anymore. The Nets won’t be playing 3 on 5 offensively and Chicago no longer has that pesky point guard that will get under the skin of the Nets and their fans. The player who matches that profile plays north of the border.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like our chances against either team, but if it were up to me, give me a street fight with the Bulls rather than a track meet with the Raptors.

As for my fellow Net fans, be careful what you wish for.

The Nets Now Know That “There is No Tomorrow”

So they say that life imitates art.

In the next few weeks, the Brooklyn Nets will be returning to the postseason for a second consecutive year, and although seedings are still being determined, they seem destined to face the Chicago Bulls once again. For many Nets fans, this potential match up is unsettling, especially with Chicago owning the home court advantage. Many would prefer a series with the Toronto Raptors, foolishly expecting them to be a “deer in the headlights” with their lack of postseason experience. The reality is, either of these opponents will be a formidable challenge for the Nets to overcome.

The Nets recent success, or lack thereof, against the Bulls has created anxiety that they will once again be eliminated by their arch nemesis. The popular opinion by many is that a first round exit would be the mark of a disappointing season, considering the hype and expectations entering it.

Hopefully after last night’s thrilling victory in Miami, which saw a shorthanded Nets team sweep the defending champions, confidence amongst fans should be very high. After all, the Heat were playing extremely motivated with the East’s top seed still at stake and payback still owed for the Nets’ previous three wins. Some will downplay the victory by mentioning that Miami was without Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, but keep in mind that the Nets were playing without the services of Kevin Garnett and Andray Blatche.

This isn’t 2013 anymore and it hasn’t been for over three months. Any data you have from the first 31 games of the season should be thrown out, shredded, burned, flushed down the toilet, etc. Those non-competitive, uninspiring efforts which resulted in a booing Barclays Center and road blowouts are irrelevant at this point in time. There’s no reason to cite those moments anymore.

Losing is never easy for a former champion.

Losing was never easy for a former champion.

So as the Nets and Bulls are on a collision course with each other, there’s only one thing that comes to my mind – Rocky III. Yes, the third installment of the boxing movie franchise which featured classic roles for both Hulk Hogan and Mr. T.

For those of you that need a refresher or brief synopsis of the film, the champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is faced with defending his title against Clubber Lang (Mr. T), the trash-talking, number one contender. Lang shows no respect for Balboa and in the process intimidates him. When they finally do face each other in the ring, The Italian Stallion is dealt a demoralizing knockout defeat.

In the ensuing months after, Rocky struggles to regain his confidence. His longtime rival, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) offers to train Rocky and help him avenge his loss to Lang. The process is painfully frustrating as Creed, a former champion himself, cannot help Rocky regain his swagger or “the eye of the tiger” as it was referred to back in the 1980s. All seems hopeless as lethargic training sessions lead to screaming matches, Apollo’s doubt, and Rocky’s admission that he is afraid.

Like any other feel-good Hollywood picture, Rocky finally comes around and momentum builds in the weeks leading up to the highly anticipated rematch with Lang. Through Apollo’s influence, he is able to change Rocky’s style from a brawler to a dancer. Rocky recaptures his confidence and ultimately reclaims his title in a three round knockout.

Both Rocky and the Nets were clearly intimidated.

Both Rocky and the Nets were clearly intimidated.

So back to those Nets – when they played against the Bulls in last year’s postseason, it was revealed by Chicago beat writer, Joe Cowley, that they wanted the Nets all along. They viewed Brooklyn as “heartless and gutless” and felt that they could expose them in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line. They viewed Deron Williams as a player that they could frustrate.

The Nets in that playoff series,  just like Balboa, came out swinging in Game 1. The Bulls took their best punch and then countered. Throughout the series, players like Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson physically and mentally intimidated the Nets. Perhaps you recall Robinson slamming CJ Watson into the scorers’ table.

It didn’t even matter that Chicago was playing without the likes of Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, and Derrick Rose. When the chips were on the table in Game 7, the Nets found themselves down 17 at the half.  Unfortunately, there was no Apollo to remind them that “there was no tomorrow”. They eventually lost 99-93.

Although no title was lost then and no title will be on the line this go around, this Nets-Bulls rivalry seems to be playing out like Rocky and Clubber. Chicago saw a weakness in Williams, Brook Lopez, and company and exploited it. This even carried into this season, and even though they’d never admit it, the Nets always appeared like a team without confidence and perhaps fearful when facing their bullies.

Like Apollo, Pierce has elevated the Nets.

Like Apollo, Pierce has elevated the Nets.

Bringing in former champions Paul Pierce and Garnett was the equivalent of Apollo taking Rocky under his wing. Aside from their on-the-court contributions, their experience and leadership has helped the Nets develop confidence, toughness, and heart.

A frustrating beginning to this process, which seemed hopeless at the time, is finally paying off. The Nets no longer back down from opponents. They take a punch and come right back at you.

If this year’s final regular season meeting versus Chicago is any indication, then the Nets should feel good about their chances going into the playoffs.

So no matter who they play or where, these Nets led by Apollo Pierce and Garnett will be ready for the challenge. The bright lights, big stage, and strength of their opponent won’t intimidate this group. It’s a new year and this is a new team.

They finally have the eye of the tiger!

It’s Time to Fix the Mistake

At the time he had to do it. The opportunity to team up with fellow All-Stars, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was too good to pass up. The ceiling had been reached in Cleveland and the chances of winning a championship there appeared to be dwindling. Although the manner in which LeBron James announced his decision was distasteful, the rationale behind it was justified.

So here we are four years later and the Miami Heat appear to be the favorite to win their third consecutive NBA title. Cleveland, on the other hand, resembles a city still recovering from a catastrophic disaster.

At one point, hope was restored when the Cavaliers won the lottery and it was certain that Kyrie Irving would be the new face of the franchise. Unfortunately, that hope appears to be quickly decaying following another disappointing season and rumors of Irving’s uncertainty about his future in Cleveland.

At the time, this helped ease the pain.

At the time, this helped ease the pain.

Cleveland’s response to appease their franchise star was to fire their general manager, Chris Grant, and make one last ditch effort to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs when they traded for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes. Even with the infusion of talent, the Cavs appear destined to return to the NBA Lottery- a place where owner Dan Gilbert vowed that they wouldn’t be returning to when they hit the jackpot last season.

Assuming Irving ultimately leaves Cleveland, where does that leave the organization? Twice they would have had an elite player dump them for a prettier girl. Not being able to recruit free agents is one thing, but not being able to retain your own franchise stars is devastating. The ramifications of losing players of this magnitude are not just a hit to the roster but also the psyche of the team and fan base. You have to wonder how Cleveland basketball will be able to recover from this.

So what am I suggesting here? I know that I am in the minority here, but I believe the decision now is for LeBron to return to his home state. Could he stay in Miami and continue to accumulate championship rings as Pat Riley replenishes and stockpiles elite talent? Obviously he could, but isn’t this the easy path for him to continue down? Wouldn’t it help his legacy more if he took on a new challenge in his career?

We all know that LeBron’s supporting cast in Cleveland during those final days could never compare with his crew in Miami, but to me, he wasn’t nearly the player as he is now. (Could LeBron Have Kept his Talents in Cleveland?) As a member of the Cavs, LeBron didn’t have the unstoppable post game that he now possesses and his outside jump shot wasn’t as consistent. People forget that he was only 25 years old during his final season in Cleveland and that his overall game had just scratched the surface. Yes, the supporting cast was lacking but maybe the real reason why he didn’t win it all was that he hadn’t peaked yet.

A developed post game was just one of the finishing touches in making LeBron unstoppable.

A developed post game was just one of the finishing touches that has made LeBron unstoppable.

Yes, Cleveland has had a disappointing season considering this was supposed to be the year that they took the next step with their young core. After accumulating multiple top 5 draft picks over the past few years, the 2013-2014 season was crucial to show progress and offer an intriguing option for James to consider if he chose to opt out of Miami. Unfortunately, the team that was supposed to get their act together is a few weeks away from returning to the lottery. For pundits like Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavs blew any chance of a King James return. ( How Cleveland lost its way, and lost a chance at LeBron’s return )

Although this may not appear to be the case, the Cavs in disarray presents the best opportunity for LeBron and his quest to become the greatest of all time. Multiple championships are certainly impressive, but just how remarkable is it when you are joining forces with two other players that are amongst the NBA’s elite to win those titles? Doesn’t that somewhat stack the deck in your favor? Wouldn’t it be more of an accomplishment to return home and elevate the city of Cleveland to their first professional championship since 1964?

Not only would his return heel the wound caused from his departure, but a championship might just be enough empirical proof to supplant Michael Jordan as the game’s greatest player. How many other times in league history did a player bring a title to two different cities, one of which was a perennial cellar dweller without him?

LeBron was the reason for the Cavaliers’ rise and ultimate fall when he left them. His return would not only be poetic but legendary. The city whose heart he broke with “The Decision” could finally experience joy. Is it really out of the realm of possibility that a core consisting of James, Irving, and Tristan Thompson, as well as whoever is selected in this year’s draft can challenge for a title?

The talent pairing of James & Irving could certainly elevate Cleveland back into contention.

The talent pairing of James & Irving could certainly rise Cleveland back into contention.

Sometimes in life you need to get away from where you grew up in order to grow as a person. LeBron taking his talents to South Beach was perhaps his version of going to college and escaping the life he always experienced in Ohio. It was in Miami that he added to his repertoire and became a more complete player. It was there that he learned how to become a winner and savor the big moments of a game rather than hide from them.

You don’t become the best at what you do without taking on some risk. Well, it’s been four years and graduation is now upon him. It’s time for LeBron to fix “The Mistake on the Lake”.