Sunday, November 18, 2012

Keys for the Nets In Their First West Coast Trip

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez (left to right) have led
the Brooklyn Nets to a fast 5-2 start.

      Early in the season, the Brooklyn Nets have started to make their own mark in the NBA. After a complete franchise overhaul during the past summer, the Nets showcased their new team in a season-opening victory against the Toronto Raptors. After two tough, unimpressive losses to Minnesota and Miami, the Nets have bounced back, beating Orlando (twice), Cleveland, and the Rajon Rondo-less Boston Celtics in their first appearance on TNT since January 2008. Brooklyn stands at the third seed in the Eastern Conference after two weeks and will embark on a road trip in which they will face the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Here are key areas of focus for the Nets during their road trip and what they will need to do to come back home on a high note:

1. Interior Defense

      This is probably the most obvious, especially because the Nets have not been incredibly impressive against players like Andrea Bargnani, Nikola Vucevic and Anderson Varejao. In Sacramento, they'll have to face double-double machine and growing young star DeMarcus Cousins and an athletic rookie in Thomas Robinson. In the second game of the road trip, the Nets will be taking on the Lakers, who will be running a more potent offense under Mike D'Antoni. Steve Nash being injured certainly limits the pick-and-roll creativity, but the Nets will need Gerald Wallace back for this game to help Lopez and Kris Humphries defend All Stars Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the paint. In their last game of the trip, the Nets take on David Lee, Andrew Bogut and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are a very talented offensive squad and will look to incorporate their inside-outside attack at the beginning of the game. Lopez has averaged nearly three blocks per game this season and Humphries has been the tenacious big man on the glass that he has been during his tenure with the Nets, but both will need to step up immensely for the Nets to return home on happy terms.

2. Gerald Wallace's Health

      Wallace is Brooklyn's best defender and will be called on to cover several talented wings on the Nets' west coast swing including Tyreke Evans, Harrison Barnes and Metta World Peace. His health and productivity will be crucial during the latter stage of the three-game set, when the Nets play back-to-back games against the Lakers and Warriors, two much-improved teams.

3. Joe Johnson's Scoring

      Seven games into the season, Johnson has performed modestly, averaging 16.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per contest. His field goal percentage is just under 39%, which is not exactly great for a player who will be paid $89 million over the next four years, but Johnson is still developing chemistry with his new teammates. However, he has stepped up in the final minutes of games and led the Nets to several solid victories. Johnson could have a particularly good game against the Warriors, a bad defensive team, but it will be more of a measuring stick to see how he plays against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Expect Johnson to progress throughout the season, but there's no denying this will be a critical stretch for the six-time All Star.

4. Brooklyn's Bench Mob

      Andray Blatche's self-proclaimed "Bench Mob" has been a strong suit for the Nets for much of the season. He, C.J. Watson, Reggie Evans and even Jerry Stackhouse have performed well and given the Nets a formidable, dependable second unit. In the Nets' close victory against the Celtics last Thursday, the second unit did not execute on offense or defense very well and let Boston take their first lead of the game in the third quarter. It will be an interesting sub-plot to see if Brooklyn's "Bench Mob" will be able to bounce back on the road trip.

5. Dwight Howard Faces Brooklyn

      If you have NBA TV on your television, you'll be able to watch the Nets take on the Lakers Tuesday evening on NBA TV's Fan Night game of the night. It will be the first time All Star center Dwight Howard gets a taste of the team he pushed to be on. It will be intriguing to see if Brook Lopez can battle in the paint against Howard. Lopez was the major trade chip in the Nets' multiple trade scenarios for Howard, but the Magic never wanted to deal Howard to the Nets. TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal has given Lopez high praise, saying he is better than Dwight Howard. That is probably a stretch, but nobody with knowledge about professional basketball can say that Lopez is a very promising, talented offensive center. But can he match up against Dwight Howard and the Lakers? We'll have to see.

6. Can Deron Williams Take Advantage?

      During the Nets' road trip, Williams will go up against Aaron Brooks, Darius Morris and Stephen Curry. It's nearly blatant to see that Williams should be able to rack up sensational statistics against these point guards. As the franchise player, he is expected to carry this Nets team on his back and I expect him to have a successful west coast trip.

      As the first west coast swing of the season, this will be an important time frame for the Nets. When they return to Brooklyn, they will face the New York Knicks for the first time in the Battle of the Boroughs. How do you think the Nets will fare on their first west coast trip? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and predictions!

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