Nets move up in class against King James and the Cavaliers


Things haven’t come easy for the Brooklyn Nets (27-38) this season, but Monday’s 122-106 win in Minnesota was as close to a cakewalk as they’ve had. Led by Joe Johnson (22 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic (21 points), the Nets offense cut through a weak Timberwolves defense, shooting 57.8 percent and notching an NBA season-high 78 points in the paint. To no surprise, the previous league high for points in the paint was Dallas’s 76 on November 11th against… you guessed it… the Timberwolves!

Since the All-Star Break, the Nets have led the NBA in points in the paint (51.4). Perhaps it was just a perfect storm.

The win, albeit morale-boosting, is best tempered accordingly, especially considering that Ricky Rubio, sportscaster enemy Kevin Garnett, Gary Neal, and Nikola Pekovic all sat out with injuries. Tonight’s opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers (43-26), will present a more formidable resistance to the Nets’ offensive flow.

Head coach David Blatt’s Cavaliers have hit their stride over the past two months. They’ve won 23 of their last 29 games, propelling them into the Central Division lead and the number two seed in the Eastern Conference. Incidentally, much of that recent success coincides with the acquisitions of Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith: all three players have meshed with the Cavaliers roster, and the team’s molded into a championship contender. Mozgov’s positive impact in particular has been a godsend after Anderson Varejao suffered a season-ending Achilles injury back on December 23rd.

One small hitch in the Cavaliers’ giddy-up came on Sunday, when LeBron James fell on his right knee during a Cleveland win in Orlando. Despite James declaring he was a “game-time” decision the next night in Miami against his ex-team, the four-time league MVP played 35 minutes and scored 26 points in their 106-92 loss to the Heat.

If pushing his hobbled superstar through an injury for one game is not evidence enough, coach Blatt has made it clear he’s pushing his team hard for that two seed at all costs. “We’ve got to finish in second place,” Blatt declared, “Now there’s not that many games left, it’s pretty easy to see what you’ve got to do to fall where….And recognizing that, we want to go after that. It will not be at the expense of the health of the players, but we certainly want to do all we can to finish as high as we can.”

Kevin Love missed his second straight game in Miami with a nagging back injury, but he’ll be in the lineup against the Nets. Despite a down scoring year, Love has regained his touch from three-point range since the All-Star Break, shooting 42.5 percent compared to 34.5 percent before. On the season, Love has averaged 16.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

After getting blown out 110-88 in Brooklyn on December 8th, the Nets dropped their last meeting in Cleveland by a closer score, losing 95-92 on December 12th. Joe Johnson scored 26 points for the Nets in that loss, but thanks to Mike Miller’s seven three-pointers and James’ 22 points & nine assists, the Cavaliers held off the Nets 95-92 after a game-tying three-pointer by Kevin Garnett misfired with three seconds remaining.

What to watch for: Second-chance points. As with their recent spike in paint points, the Nets have been proficient in second-chance points since the All-Star break, averaging 14.7 per game. That’s good for 5th in the league in that span.

Tip-off is at 7:00 EDT at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.