Nets and Lakers play a Sunday Matinee

No Jeremy Lin, but Deron Williams will play in Nets-Lakers. (AP)
No Jeremy Lin, but Deron Williams will play in Nets-Lakers. (AP)

March Madness is in full tilt on the amateur level, but the NBA Eastern Conference playoff race may fall under the same moniker. With less than three weeks left in the regular season, the Nets (31-40) begin the day just a half-game behind the Boston Celtics for the eighth and final playoff spot, and 1.5 games behind the Miami Heat for seventh. Five teams (Miami, Boston, Nets, Charlotte, Indiana) stand within two games of each other in the standings which could set up for an exciting finish albeit with less stakes at the moment than the college ranks.

The Nets have won four of their last five games, including a stellar 106-98 win over the Central Division-leading Cleveland Cavaliers Friday night. Joe Johnson played his best game in some time with 20 points and nine assists, along with a big three-pointer down the stretch that proved to be a dagger. With Thaddeus Young sitting out with a hyper-extended knee, head coach Lionel Hollins went with a bigger starter lineup, playing Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee together. It paid off: after being out-rebounded 142-102 combined in their previous three meetings, the Nets won the war on the glass 46-40, led by Lopez’s nine and Plumlee’s eight. Newly signed Earl Clark pitched in with seven points in 11 minutes off the bench.

Today, in an afternoon matinée at Barclays Center, the Nets host the lowly Los Angeles Lakers (19-52), losers of 11 of their last 14 games. On Friday, the Lakers shot a putrid 34.5 percent, scoring just 35 second-half points en route to a 94-83 loss to the Raptors in Toronto.

Already without Kobe Bryant and Julius Randle for the season, the Lakers have been without Nick Young (knee fracture) and Ronnie Price (elbow surgery) the last 16 games. On Tuesday, Lakers coach Byron Scott told veterans Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill that they would sit more, so the team can better evaluate the younger guys. Coincidentally (or not) the Lakers currently hold the fourth-worst record in the NBA, which prevents them from relinquishing their protected draft pick originally given up in the Steve Nash trade years back. The pick will defer to 2016 as long as the Lakers hold pick 1 through 5.

On February 20th at Staples Center, the Nets held off a fourth-quarter surge by the Lakers to prevail 114-105 to begin their five-game post All-Star break road trip. Johnson led the Nets with 23 points, and Lopez notched 22 points & 14 rebounds off the bench. An energized Deron Williams dished out a season-high 15 assists to go along with 12 points. Williams was a game-time decision (illness), but he will play.

Tip-off is at 3:30 PM EDT at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.