10:55 am Jan. 14, 2013
The Nets started off the season winning a lot, then slumped till their coach got fired, then started winning again.
Are they overachieving again now, as when they came out of the gate winning 11 of 15? Or were they just inexplicably off their game during that 3-10 stretch in the middle?
It's been hard to tell, notwithstanding the impressive 8-1 mark the Nets have put up under new coach P.J. Carlesimo. Most of the wins have come against lesser teams, the only exception being a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But the 97-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night suggested something durable.
The Pacers have, of late, played as well as almost anybody in the league, entering Sunday night's game having won 13 of 16 after a 10-11 start. The Pacers have the most efficient defense in the league, which has made up for an offense that has struggled, at times, to score.
That combination lifted the Pacers to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, just ahead of the fourth-place Nets. In a conference devoid of championship contenders beyond the Miami Heat, who have struggled of late, and the injury-ravaged Knicks, the Nets and Pacers had as much right as anyone to lay claim to the contender mantle.
The Nets followed their Thunder playbook perfectly, storming out to a fast start, weathering the Indiana counterpunch, then executing offensively while suffocating the Pacers in a decisive fourth-quarter run.
Against the Thunder, that fourth-quarter run of 25-8 to close out the game helped the Nets to a 110-93 win. Against the Pacers, that run was 17-0, turning an eight-point deficit into a nine-point lead.
The primary reason for the team's fourth-quarter dominance this time was Brook Lopez. In a matchup of two centers who received max contract extensions this summer, Lopez clearly got the better of Roy Hibbert down the stretch, scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter while Hibbert was scoreless in the fourth, and managed just six points all night. The Nets didn't force things with Lopez, though. For the quarter, they managed seven assists on their eight field goals, shot 57 percent from the field, and made both of their three-point attempts.
But the Nets were in position to win thanks to two other strengths assumed at the start of the season; Deron Williams and bench depth. Williams scored 22 points and added nine assists, while the bench added 30 points and 19 rebounds. Kris Humphries came just a rebound short of a double-double in only 17 minutes of work. The Nets overwhelmed the Pacers with their numbers.
But the real revelation was that fourth-quarter defense. The Pacers hardly had an open shot in the quarter, and the result was a 3-for-22 shooting performance, and just 11 points.
The Pacers aren't a good offensive team. But the echoes of the win in Oklahoma City, which came against one of the best offensive teams in the league, mean something. They mean that the Nets are capable of achieving this result against a variety of good teams, again and again.