Stage two begins tomorrow

Miami Heat LeBron James, Brooklyn Nets Deron Williams
Miami Heat LeBron James, Brooklyn Nets Deron Williams
After falling 103-73 to them on November 7th, The Brooklyn Nets face the Miami Heat again December 1st. (AP/Wilfredo Lee)
The Brooklyn Nets are 6-2 right now, and that’s awesome. But the tests begin now.

The Brooklyn Nets are 6-2, mostly without Gerald Wallace, without a clearly defined 48-minute offensive plan, and with the worst third-quarter differential in the NBA. They’re riding a wave right now, and with their starting lineup finally intact, look to vault forward. But it’s not going to be easy. The Nets have faced the easiest schedule in the NBA so far, per Basketball-Reference’s “strength of schedule” rating. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why: The Nets’ 8 opponents have played .371 ball outside of those Nets games, and that includes the 8-3 Miami Heat.

Here’s the schedule for the next nine games:

November 20: @ Los Angeles Lakers
November 21: @ Golden State Warriors
November 23: vs. Los Angeles Clippers
November 25: vs. Portland Trail Blazers
November 26: vs. New York Knicks
November 28: @ Boston Celtics
November 30: @ Orlando Magic
December 1: @ Miami Heat
December 4: vs. Oklahoma City

Of those nine games, three the Brooklyn Nets should win (Golden State, Portland, Orlando), three they could win (Los Angeles Clippers, New York, Boston) and three they probably shouldn’t win (The D’Antoni Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City). Sure, they might drop a stunner to Golden State in a late game on the second day of a back-to-back on the road, and sure, they might catch Los Angeles trying to figure things out with a new coach. But realistically, it’s fair to say that they’ll probably win at least three and lose at least three of their next nine games. It’s those middle three games that’ll be the major test for the Brooklyn Nets; the Clippers, Knicks, and Celtics are all very good teams, teams in the same “tier” as Brooklyn.

The Knicks — perhaps the Nets’ biggest rival at this point — are playing like the best team in the NBA, having defeated the Miami Heat by 20, the Philadelphia 76ers by 16 & 22, the Dallas Mavericks by 10, the Indiana Pacers by 12, and the San Antonio Spurs by 4. They’ve only lost to the Memphis Grizzlies once, and hold the league’s second-best record (behind those Grizzlies) despite playing its fifth-hardest schedule and employing four players older than Rasheed Wallace. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t an integral hope that November 26th comes and the Knicks get swept out of Barclays Center to a chorus of Brooklyn chants, but it won’t be an easy victory for either team.

The Clippers look just as good as New York. They’ve beaten the Grizzlies, the Mike Brown Lakers, the Spurs, and the Heat themselves, and are in the midst of a five-game winning streak with an average margin of victory over 15 points per game. The Celtics have struggled more than the other two, but they’re the Celtics. After years of wondering when they’ll fall of the cliff, I just can’t assume it’s going to happen.

These next three weeks are a constant stream of real tests for the Brooklyn Nets, one that’s more indicative of the regular season than the cushy opening schedule: it’s evenly split between teams they should crush, teams that will probably beat them, and teams they’ll have a fun fight against. They could go anywhere from 3-6 to 6-3 and it wouldn’t surprise me. I’m just hoping that, after a hot start, Nets fans don’t discourage themselves if a cooling-off period comes. Just know that it’s a process, in the course of a long 82-game season, and that 45-48 wins just means 34-37 losses. They have to come eventually.

I’m not discounting hope. It’d be awesome if the Brooklyn Nets left December 4th with a 15-2 record, having smoke-demolished every piece-of-garbage-by-comparison team in its path. There’s certainly significant room for improvement — Deron Williams and Joe Johnson still haven’t “clicked,” Gerald Wallace & MarShon Brooks are still getting game legs back, and Kris Humphries has played below expectations. They can certainly play far better than they have in the past eight games, and they’re still 6-2. But the next nine games stand in stark contrast to the first eight. Do yourself a favor and remember that on December 5th.