With the NBA All-Star Game out of the way and just three days left in the Nets’ much-needed break, the focus is now on the final 23 games of the season. Brooklyn will start the stretch run in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and smack dab in the middle of a play-in round spot.
For a team that was expected to be a title contender, their current position is precarious, to say the least. That makes the final 23 games of the year even that more important. As The Brooklyn Game pointed out earlier, the Nets aren’t in dire straights just yet, but the battle back to the top of the East isn’t going to be easy.
Here are five games that fans shouldn’t miss during the Nets’ final push to the playoffs.
[READ: While it won’t be easy, Nets can turn season around in final 23 games]
Nets vs. Celtics, Feb. 24
This seems like a no-brainer, but this game will set the tone for the rest of the season. The likelihood that Kevin Durant or Ben Simmons suit up for this game remains slim, so it is imperative for the Nets role players to step up as they’ve done for a better part of the last two-plus months.
Boston has won nine of their last 10 games heading into the break and is sure to come out firing on all cylinders as they look to climb the East Standings, sitting just 4.5 games back of the conference-leading Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. What makes the game as important too is the fact that it kicks off a stretch where the Nets will see teams ahead of them in seven of their next eight contests.
Nets at 76ers, March 10
It would be hard to imagine Ben Simmons won’t be back on the court by the time the Nets make their first trip to the City of Brotherly Love since the blockbuster deal that sent Simmons to Kings County and James Harden to Philadelphia. While Simmons has remained somewhat mum on the particulars that led to his need to leave Philly, Harden appeared to take some parting shots on his way out of town.
This game is sure to have all the makings of a major rivalry matchup when it rolls around in just over two weeks’ time.
“I’ve been on the other side,” Simmons said during his introductory press conference last week. “I’ve played Brooklyn in the first round and had them booing, Jared Dudley talking s–t to me. That was a lot of fun actually. I love Jared for that.”
Nets at Grizzlies, March 23
This is a contest that is hard to miss if for nothing else, just to watch Ja Morant. But for the Nets, it will be another test of where the team stands with nine games left in the year. Theoretically, Durant and Simmons should be back in the lineup at this point and getting settled in with one another. Even if Durant doesn’t take the court for the first three games after the NBA All-Star break and Simmons takes a game or two longer, they’ll have had nearly a month together on the court by the time the game rolls around.
Morant had 36 points in the only other meeting between the two clubs earlier this season. Durant had a 26 game outing in a 118-104 loss at Barclays Center. Perhaps the biggest surprise in all of that was the surprise appearance by Antonio Brown.
Brooklyn will surely want to get a W in a game against one of the NBA’s most exciting young teams and start a short two-game trip that will take them to Miami for the second game.
Nets vs. Bucks, March 31
The Bucks were responsible for ending the Nets season earlier than they had hoped last season, and Brooklyn still hasn’t been able to get some revenge this year. The Nets will see the Bucks in the first few games after the break, but the meeting on the final day of March presents a much more important moment for Brooklyn’s playoff push.
The Nets have yet to defeat Milwaukee this year and have been outscored 124-106.5 in their two previous matchups combined. As it stands right now, the Bucks are 2.5 games back of the top spot in the East and will see the Nets with just five games left in the regular season after that for Brooklyn.
Nets at Knicks, April 6
The Nets return to Madison Square Garden for the first time since Cam Thomas’ heroics last week. The Knicks’ playoff hopes are hanging on by a thread, and likely by the time this game takes place they’ll have been eliminated from postseason contention.
However, there’s no doubt the Knicks would love to spoiler in any fashion they can to their crosstown rivals, especially after suffering one of their organization’s most embarrassing losses to the Nets.