Nets look to reach .500 against the NBA’s best team

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul
(AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
(AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
(AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

Nets look to reach .500 against the NBA’s best team

Opponent: Los Angeles Clippers
Time: 10:30 PM EST
Location: Staples Center
Watch: YES Network
Listen: WFAN 660AM/101.9FM

There are two ways to look at the Brooklyn Nets’ most recent outing, a 122-104 win over the Phoenix Suns. On one hand, it was a bad-to-mediocre team beating up on an awful-to-bad team, and it isn’t representative of much (if anything). On the other hand, it demonstrated that the Nets are capable of bending but not breaking, as they halted a ferocious Suns comeback late in the fourth quarter, turning a narrow 4-point lead with 5 minutes to play into an 18-point victory.

Tonight will be the team’s fifth-straight game without Jeremy Lin, and they’ve played reasonably well thus far, splitting the first 4 games (with a +9 point differential). Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has stepped up his game dramatically over this stretch, averaging 13.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists on a .722 TS%, and it seems as though a different player has shouldered the load every night — with Sean Kilpatrick, Trevor Booker, Brook Lopez, and Justin Hamilton (yes, Justin Hamilton!) also carrying the offense for stretches. Their loss to the New York Knicks last week was disheartening (particularly so considering how strong they looked in the first half), but few expected the team to be this competitive without their starting point guard.

This evening will be their biggest test — with or without Lin — as it will be against their toughest opponent yet. The Los Angeles Clippers sit atop the Western Conference at 9-1 and are outscoring their opponents by 15.1 points per game (the Atlanta Hawks have the second-best differential in the NBA, at 10.7 PPG). They rank 1st in the NBA in Defensive Rating and 8th in Offensive Rating, and Blake Griffin is succeeding on his pledge to make up for the indiscretions that ended his 2015-2016 season prematurely. This is a team that beat the San Antonio Spurs by 24 points on the second night of a back-to-back and then drubbed the Portland Trail Blazers by 31 four nights later.

It would be nice to see the Nets ascend to .500 against this squad — but it simply doesn’t feel likely.

Three Things to Watch for in Nets-Clippers:

1. Can the Nets light it up from deep?

If the Clippers’ defense has a weakness, it’s on the perimeter and opposing teams have shot 34.4% from three, which places them 16th in the NBA. The Nets are not necessarily good from beyond the arc, but they’re not afraid to hoist up shots and the Clippers tend to allow good looks — especially when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are on the floor together.

2. Can the Nets outrun the Clippers?

The Nets currently have the second-fastest pace in the NBA; the Clippers sit at 16th. It’s the quintessential match-up between a modern offense and a more traditional half-court game plan. Of course, the Nets are the younger team, as the Clippers feature only one player under the age of 27 in their rotation and three 30-and-over starters. That may not matter, given how much talent this Clippers team has, but it’s the greatest advantage that Kenny Atkinson has.

3. How small will the Nets go?

This question was originally going to be: “which Brook Lopez will show up?” — but the answer is now “N/A,” as he will not be playing tonight.

The Nets did not have the size to match-up with the Clippers, even with Lopez, so managing the team’s rotation tonight has become an even greater challenge for Atkinson and his staff. Will Luis Scola, Chris McCullough, and Hamilton see more minutes as the team attempts to fight size with size? Or will we see lineups featuring Randy Foye, Bojan Bogdanovic, Kilpatrick, Hollis-Jefferson, and Booker?

Against the Clippers, will anything the Nets trot out make a difference?

Only time will tell.