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Nets approaching season-defining stretch of games – The Denver Post

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The Nets found success through an arduous road trip. The upcoming homestand, however, projects as less than kind.

After wrapping their five-game road trip in Oklahoma City on Tuesday — a stretch that also featured pit stops in Houston, Milwaukee, Minnesota and Denver — the Nets now welcome the NBA’s elite to Barclays Center for a four-game stretch sure to test the bounds of their newfound No. 1 defense.

The Nets host the Western Conference’s No. 3 Sacramento Kings on Thursday; host Nikola Jokic and the West’s No. 1 seeded Nuggets in a matinee game on Sunday; then welcome Donovan Mitchell and the Eastern Conference’s fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in back-to-back games.

The Nets just defeated the Nuggets in Denver in one of their best games of the season, but the Nuggets believe they got caught sleeping. Expect that team to make a statement in Brooklyn.

The stretch then continues on the road in Miami against a Heat team that may have turned a corner by creeping into the East’s No. 7 seed, followed by a trip to Orlando hours later in the second game of a a back-to-back against a long, athletic and spry Magic team.

The Nets exited the All-Star break with the NBA’s seventh-most difficult remaining schedule in all of basketball. They lost their first four games out of the break, then won five games in six tries entering Tuesday’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

That makes Brooklyn 5-5 through the first 10 games of one of the NBA’s 10 toughest schedules. From this point on, the Nets have the 12th lightest schedule, though their upcoming six-game stretch is as difficult a slate of games any team has to face.

The Nets have a number of reasons to be motivated to secure as many wins as possible, chief among them their very playoff livelihood in a conference with three underachieving teams that entered the season with aspirations of deep playoff runs.

The No. 7 Heat, No. 8 Atlanta Hawks and No. 10 Chicago Bulls have all disappointed given the star power on their respective rosters — and you can add the No. 11 Washington Wizards as a perennial contender for let-down of the year. Each of those teams invested in star power — yet each of those teams, minus the embarrassing Wizards, would find themselves in sudden-death Play-In Tournament territory if the playoffs began today.

The playoffs don’t.

Every Eastern Conference team entered Tuesday with at least 12 games left on the schedule. The Heat, for example, are three games behind the Nets in the standings and have played two more games than the Nets so far this season.

Yet they have the fifth-lightest schedule in all of basketball, their stars (Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro) are all healthy, and the Heat entered Tuesday winners of four of their last six games.

Trae Young’s Hawks have 13 games left on the schedule and have the 13th strongest remaining schedule — in other words: a relatively average slate — and have also underperformed given Young’s star power, the addition of Dejounte Murray and the three-and-D capacity of their versatile roster. They also fired head coach Nate McMillan midway through the season and replaced him with Quin Snyder — who molded the Utah Jazz into perennial contenders around Mitchell — providing more evidence Atlanta is home to a team capable of making a late-season run.

The Bulls are less of a threat with the eighth strongest remaining schedule in all of basketball, but at five games below-.500 and 7.5 games behind the Nets in the standings, the desperation level in the Windy City has to be high. With DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic on the floor, Chicago isn’t a team anyone wants on the wrong night, especially not in a winner-take-all Play-In Tournament game.

Another reason the Nets need to come out on the favorable end of the upcoming six-game stretch? It could be the difference between seeing Joel Embiid in the first round of the playoffs — and seeing Mitchell.

Brooklyn entered Tuesday in a virtual tie with the Knicks for the No. 5 seed, and the two teams are tied at 2-2 in their season series, meaning the tiebreaker criteria would come down to division record. The Knicks are 8-8 in the Atlantic Division and the Nets are 7-8 with their final division game on April 9 in Brooklyn in the season finale against Embiid and the 76ers.

And if the Nets finish with a more favorable record than the Knicks in their final sprint to the postseason, they can evade the No. 3 76ers, who are three-and-a-half games ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a much more favorable first-round opponent if the Nets maintain hold of the East’s No. 5 seed.

If they don’t, the best-case scenario is a date with Embiid, and as for worst case: with the surging Heat, there’s no guarantee the Nets hold onto No. 6, meaning every game counts from here on out if the Nets want to stay a playoff team this season.

That starts with an upcoming stretch at Barclays Center — hosting Sacramento, Denver, and Spida Mitchell twice — before a trip to Miami to face a motivated Heat team in the first leg of a back-to-back shortly after.



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