The Brooklyn Nets are experiencing a sense of desperation following a sluggish start to the season that includes losses to Cleveland, Orlando, Washington and Sacramento so far.
At least, that's what Nets guard Jason Terry told the NY Daily News a few days ago. And that was before Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez all either sat out with nagging injuries or limped off the floor this weekend in games against the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko has already missed over half the team's games with back issues and only five Brooklyn players have seen action in all nine games so far. With an already strained lineup, the Nets hit the road this past weekend to play three games in four nights, featuring an overtime win against the Suns on Friday -- good for the only win of the trip.
This team is stretched to its limits right now, relying on heavy minutes from guys who would probably only see spot duty if the team were mostly healthy. Unfortunately, the issues many predicted this team would suffer from -- fatigue and injuries, considering they are the second only to the Miami Heat in average player age -- have snakebitten the Nets, the most expensive team in the league. They haven't had much time together to play as a full rotation, and as such, rookie coach Jason Kidd has struggled to build chemistry on both ends of the floor.
Regardless of health and chemistry-related issues, the show must go on, and the Blazers head into Brooklyn Monday afternoon for the second half of a back-to-back set that kicked off with an overtime win over the Toronto Raptors yesterday morning. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard all played over 40 minutes. Wesley Matthews clocked in at just over 39.
Both teams are likely fatigued -- Brooklyn's coming back from a West coast road trip, Portland is in the middle of a week-long East coast swing and both teams recently played overtime games. The Blazers, though, should have the horses to keep the team fresh, as no one on their bench besides Mo Williams played a ton of minutes this past weekend. Starting center Robin Lopez was limited to fewer than 24 minutes yesterday, and his backup, Joel Freeland, played about 12 minutes as both rode the pine due to foul trouble.
Meanwhile, the Nets have recently played a rookie, two second-rounders from last year who've barely gotten off the bench and Tornike Shengelia, a small forward who started the season in the D-League.
Not surprisingly, the Nets haven't been elite -- or anywhere near the top of the league, for that matter -- in very many statistical categories this season. They've limited opposing teams' points in the paint and blocked shots pretty well, but that's been with a healthy Lopez playing. He sat out Saturday night against the Clippers with a sprained ankle and is still day-to-day, so even if he does play, he likely won't be at full strength. That's a bummer for the Nets, too. So far this year, Lopez has been one of the best individual rim protectors in the game, only allowing a third of his opponents' shots to make it past him for buckets. That puts him in the company of guys like Larry Sanders, Taj Gibson, Tiago Splitter and Anthony Davis at protecting the rim and he's blocking more shots per game than Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan.
In short, Lopez has become a valuable anchor for the Nets' defense. He's also playing the most efficient basketball of his career on the offensive end. Though Brooklyn played valiantly without him Saturday night in Los Angeles, they gave up 44 points in the paint (which is still not as bad as Portland's average of 48.2 points given up in the middle per game, though).
Either way, the Nets are going to miss Lopez tremendously on both ends of the floor if he doesn't play and will rely on Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee to hold down the middle. Not surprisingly, they've both struggled.
Will this be the game that the Blazers finally take their game to the key and take advantage of a Nets defense that will be weakest at its core? Maybe, but it's not necessarily likely. Portland shied away from attacking the weak interior defenses of Boston and Toronto in the last two games, instead favoring an attack from the outside-in. Still, this Brooklyn team is reeling without five of its main rotational players and it would behoove Portland to at least make an effort to get to the rim and score some easy points.
The Blazers should have no excuse to lose the rebounding battle, regardless of Lopez' status. The Nets give up a ton of rebounds even when somewhat healthy. Portland, already a decent rebounding team, should feast on the boards tonight against this depleted Brooklyn roster.
Now, even though the Nets are going through some -- okay, a lot of -- adversity, they have seen some promise of late from Blatche and Plumlee on the offensive end. Both poured in 19 points against the Clippers and shot the ball well. A solid game from both fill-ins does not make either an All-Star, but they've demonstrated the ability to score points efficiently for stretches. And don't forget how poorly the Blazers defend the key; they are literally the worst team in the league at protecting the paint. Blatche, Plumlee and point guard Shaun Livingston will likely follow the blueprint Toronto set yesterday when they attacked the Blazers' interior and won the points-in-the-paint battle 62-28.
Even though the Nets should look to score at the rim, like the Raptors they don't really have good shooters. Their best healthy outside shooters are Terry and wing Alan Anderson, both good for 36.7 percent from behind the arc. Joe Johnson shoots 34.3 percent and no one else on the roster is even worth mentioning when it comes to shooting threes. Besides, Portland is one of the best teams at defending the three-point line in the NBA. Unless one of Brooklyn's perimeter players catches fire -- and that's not very likely, considering the circumstances -- they're probably not going to make the Blazers pay from outside.
The Nets are a terrible team at defending the perimeter, spelling trouble for them against a Portland squad that features some of the best ball movement in the NBA that often leads to open outside shots, which have been capitalized on by Lillard, Batum, Matthews, Dorell Wright and occasionally Williams so far this year. Lillard and Williams have shown the ability to get past the first layer of opposing defenses, forcing teams to collapse inside. This has led to many an open shot on the perimeter, as well. The Nets will be in big trouble tonight if Portland is hitting from outside, and it's just a bad matchup for a Brooklyn team that will play so many inexperienced guys heavy minutes tonight.
Portland should look to come out firing against a tired, hurt and depleted Nets team. If they let them stick around like they did with the Raptors yesterday, the Blazers could see themselves in a similar situation, facing a rally behind a team desperately searching for a win. Portland saw late game heroics from both Lillard and Batum, but those shots aren't always going to fall.
Brooklyn is a team backed into a corner, and they might be able to muster up enough resiliency and fight in front of their home crowd to make this game competitive. It's up to the Blazers to kick the door shut early and prevent the Nets from gaining any momentum. It may not be a blowout, but Portland should come out, establish a lead and maintain it through all four quarters. Of course, the Blazers' outside shooting could go cold, their interior defense could be just as porous as usual and Brooklyn could find themselves in it the whole game. If that's the case, the Blazers have seen proof that anything can happen down the stretch.
Portland is currently sitting at No. 1 in the Northwest Division and No. 2 overall in the Western Conference. Even considering a semi-weak early schedule, the Blazers are an 8-2 team and should be able to handle a weakened opponent like the Nets. Good teams usually take care of business, and it's up to Portland to prove that they're worthy of their record and continue picking up wins against teams they're favored over. Tonight's game against the Nets is a good opportunity to pick up another road win before the difficulty of the Blazers' schedule ramps up in the next several weeks.
Injury update: Tom Lorenzo of SBN Brooklyn affiliate NetsDaily reports that Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Andrei Kirilenko will be out for the game tonight. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce's playing status looks to be a game-time decision.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter