NBA Season Preview: Brooklyn Nets

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Last Season: I want you to imagine the most you’ve ever vomited. Like, literally, the greatest single bout of nauseated vomiting you’ve ever gone through. I want you to think about what you ate, what it smelled like, that cold, hard porcelain  or unfeeling trash can that embraced you after the day-old shellfish or that bottle of Bullit whiskey you thought would be awesome to drink in bulk.

That, plus some turnovers, was the Nets last year.

Brook Lopez was hurt. Gerald Wallace was getting adjusted. The organization was clearing the decks for this summer, and Deron Williams, honestly, it seemed like, was not fully invested in throwing himself into the vomit-water over and over again. They weren’t the worst team in the league. But there were games they could have made a good effort for that title. They were not good, at the basketball, as the kids say.

Key Departures: Johan Petro.

Just kidding! Gerald Green also took off. The Nets didn’t really lose anyone in free agency of note, because it was hard to note anyone beneath all the vomit.

However, the trade for Joe Johnson did send Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson out.

Key Additions: Mikhail Prokhorov kind of made it rain. Barclays finished construction and the sky over Brooklyn opened up and started to rain down cash for sub-All-Stars.

They re-signed Deron Williams, after it was expected there would be a tense decision over Dallas vs. Brooklyn, instead, Mark Cuban didn’t even attend the Mavs’ meeting with Williams, and Williams re-upped for the max. How did Brooklyn sway the All-Star point guard to buy into their team after all the vomit?

They traded for what many consider to be the worst contract in the NBA. The Nets pulled off a stunner trade, as Danny Ferry kick-started a rebuilding process in Atlanta. Sending out a package of delete-able contracts for Johnson netted them a second All-Star to pair with Williams, showed their commitment, and drastically improved their team, regardless of what the salary hawks might say.

From there… more money! Gerald Wallace was re-signed at either a drastic overpay or a semi-bargain depending on which side of the fence you’re on, at four-years, $40 million. They brought back Kris Humphries on a pretty massive deal considering what he brings to the table. They upgraded their bench considerably, adding Reggie Evans to club people, C.J. Watson for back-up point guard, brought over Mirza Teletovic, and added bargain veterans in Andray Blatch and Josh Childress.

Oh, and they gave Brook Lopez a huge four-year deal. They needed a quality starting center and were capped out, so they had to put the money in on Lopez. It’s a big investment in Lopez considering his issues and injury, but if you look at his production before his health problems, very much worth it.

Three Keys to the Nets’ Season:

1. Avery Johnson gets the defense to work: Avery Johnson’s track record with the Nets has been very poor, but so has the talent. He’s got the talent, now he’s got to make it work. Brook Lopez is an offensive-focused center, and can have issues defensively. He’s also got the injury history, but the foot condition is not supposed to  be a recurring problem and the other issue was mono, so you can’t really think he’s going to have problems. That said, he’s not a rim protector. Kris Humphries brings a lot of effort and can defend in space, but he’s also not a dominant defensive presence.

Johnson has to figure out how to put all the pieces together for a team that has no real time together, and has to do it immediately. He’s going to need a lot from Gerald Wallace, almost asking Wallace to do what Andre Iguodala did for the Sixers the last few years. It’s building a strong defense in a defensive-centric conference from non-defensive-focused players who haven’t spent any time together. But if he can make it work, the Nets have the offensive firepower to shoot their way to a high seed in the East.

2. Joe Johnson must learn to live without the ball: For years, Johnson has operated in an ISO-heavy offense in Atlanta where he was allowed to go one-on-one (or one-on-three) at any moment. Now he has to work off-ball because Deron Williams will be the maestro most of the time. He needs to set good screens for the wing pick-and-pop and take advantage of the defense not being prepared for his cuts and catch-and-shoot opportunities. This isn’t to say that Johnson won’t isolate, he will, and Johnson will provide him with those opportunities. But the Nets will be at their best when they employ the tactics that have made the other “super teams” effective, by using their talent to create constant dilemmas for the defense on who to guard, and then creating open looks for star players. Johnson could have the best season of his career if he adjusts to that.

3. Brook Lopez has got to do his thing: Lopez was among the players on the annual “(X Player) got how much money?!” list, but the truth is that he’s a top offensive center in this league (when healthy). He has terrific range, footwork, touch, court awareness and finishing ability (when healthy). Lopez has true size at the position, and if defenses are sagging off of him to guard the Nets’ perimeter weapons with help defense, Lopez is absolutely going to feast (if he’s healthy). You seeing a pattern, yet?

He’s going to get a ton of opportunities, and he’ll be the third best offensive weapon on the team. But more importantly, the Nets desperately need him to improve his rebounding. There are a lot of reasons listed why Lopez’ rebounding fell off the map. The mono and injuries are a good one. But his issues with Avery Johnson should also be noted. He’s got to show a re-commitment to the glass because the Nets are going to need it, even with Humphries on the floor. Lopez has to become an all-around center this year and there is absolutely zero time for him to develop into it any more.

What one thing should scare Nets fans? That these players are not considered elite outside of Williams, and yet the Nets spent a fortune on them. Johnson is a perennial All-Star, but he’s not considered in the top three of shooting guards, when shooting guards is the weakest position in the league at the moment. Lopez comes with a host of concerns. Humphries brings production and effort but has always thrived on losing teams, which can be a worrisome sign. (But would you rather he have struggled on a poor team?).  And Wallace is a one-time All-Star who is dependent on his athleticism and is starting to creep up the age ladder at 30. This is not a superstar team on the level of Boston, Miami, L.A., but they’re paying Brewster’s millions towards the club not just this year but for the next four years, really. If the combination of players isn’t right, it could be a disaster they can’t pull out of, and could make for an ugly situation.

Alternative option: If the past two years of Deron Williams’ play has not been an aberration but a legitimate slide in effectiveness.

How it likely works out: Just fine. Look, Deron Williams, when initiated, is one of the top five point guards in the league and on any given night can look like a top-two point guard (at least). He’s a great defender, a good team leader, a versatile offensive player, and an all-around stud. Joe Johnson is, in all honesty, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, something he almost never gets credit for. And while the dribble-dribble pull-up jumper act gets old, he can still have nights where he takes over. This is the most talent he’s played with since Phoenix (and those Hawks teams were no joke), and he’s got a real opportunity to take his name to the national stage, finally. Wallace is an all-around monster in terms of what he does end to end and Lopez is a fantastic weapon (when healthy). They still have MarShon Brooks they added versatile forwards, and Avery Johnson did coach a Finals team.

They have all the talent in the world. And talent matters in this league. The odds of this being an unmitigated disaster are minuscule. The worst case scenario for them is that they end up on the bottom of the Knicks-Nets-Sixers lump, or that someone gets injured and the thing falls apart. But there’s just too much talent to believe that will happen. This is a team with loads of talent and players that do understand how to play in a team concept, no real divas on this squad. It’s going to be a good team, a very good team, maybe even a borderline-great team.

It’s just not a title contender, and that’s OK.

Prediction: 47-35. That’s right, I’m copping out and putting them with the same record we slapped on New York and the Sixers. The margin of error here is honestly three wins, as any of those three teams could hit 50 win and any of them could wind up just two games over .500. We have to see how it works out. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Nets run up a huge regular season record, though, and land in the top three in the East should the Central division struggle. But coming in just a hair over .500 isn’t out of the question, just because it’s a lot of new faces trying to get on the same page without elite talent outside of Williams. So we land at 47 wins, and for a franchise as bad as the Nets have been (see: vomit) over the past few years, that’s a great start to a new era in Brooklyn.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.