Sunday night's matchup between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Brooklyn Nets was a tale of two teams headed in different directions. Brooklyn rolled to a 15-point victory that gave the Nets 13 straight wins at Barclays Center and an Eastern Conference-topping 29-12 record in 2014, while the Wolves lost for the fourth time in six games. The Nets stayed within 1 1/2 games of the Chicago Bulls for the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, while Minnesota dropped back down to .500 at 36-36 and sit seven games back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 10 games left.
Jason Kidd's crew weathered an off game from top gun Deron Williams (6 points on 1 for 9 shooting from the field in 32 minutes) thanks to a balanced attack that saw seven Brooklynites score at least seven points and the whole crew shoot 50 percent as a team, while Rick Adelman's squad fell behind early and couldn't make up the distance late on a rare off-night from All-Star power forward Kevin Love (14 points on 5 for 14 shooting in 33 minutes). Coming off a breezy 22-10-10 triple-double in Friday's blowout of the player-hating Los Angeles Lakers, Love went 1 for 6 in the second half, coming up short as Brooklyn extended its lead and salted the game away late. Adelman attributed Love's struggles in part to some overly physical Nets defense.
“They held him all game,” the coach told Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Just being honest."
For his part, Love — who sounded like he might not be particularly impressed with Brooklyn's 2014 turnaround, given some of the factors in play — chalked his late-game struggles up to fatigue, according to Tim Bontemps of the New York Post:
“Their vets are healthy, they got guys who can step up and make shots,” said Love, who then added, “They’re in the East.”
Some of Love’s resentment surfaces because his Timberwolves (36-36) are playing out the string in the much deeper Western Conference, while at least one and potentially two teams are likely to make the playoffs in the East with losing records.
But he also wasn’t willing to give [Paul] Pierce [...] any credit for the way he and the Nets shut him down offensively. Love finished with 14 points on 5-for-14 shooting to go with nine rebounds.
“They did a good job, but it was really just me being exhausted,” Love said. “I couldn’t find any energy in the second half.”
Why couldn’t he find any energy?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I might be getting sick or something.”
When Love's theory made its way to the Nets locker room, the ever-quotable "Truth" offered his own explanation, according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News:
Hearing what Love said, Paul Pierce, who guarded Minnesota’s power forward most of the game, had the diagnosis.
“Pierce-itis," he said, walking out of the locker room. “It’s getting around."
Pierce has definitely been fever-y at the start of his last couple of games, scoring 33 points on 10 for 10 shooting — including an 8 for 8 mark from 3-point land — in just over 17 minutes of first-quarter play over Brooklyn's last two games.
He hasn't been quite that hot all the time, but he's playing perhaps his best ball of the season as the Nets make their playoff push — just under 15 points, five rebounds and two assists in 27 minutes per game since the All-Star break, and 16.6 points in 27.8 minutes per game on 55.4 percent shooting, 50 percent from 3 and 80.9 percent from the line over his last 10 games. He finished with a game-high 22 points on 11 shots, including a 5 for 8 mark from deep, to go with five boards and two steals on Sunday, helping Brooklyn improve to 13-4 against Western Conference opposition since Jan. 1. (So much for Love's "They're in the East" crack, huh?)
Injuries to bigs Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett have helped fuel the Nets' move to a small-ball identity, which frequently features the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Pierce playing as an undersized power forward. He's punching above his weight class in such matchups, but he's tended to outproduce his larger counterparts at the four spot, and Brooklyn's opportunistic defense continues to look great with multiple long-armed, active, smart veterans holding down the fort — the Nets snared another 13 steals on Sunday, continuing their 2014-league-leading propensity for ending opponents' offensive possessions with a turnover.
Yes, Kidd deserves plenty of credit for keeping the Nets on an even keel after their disastrous start to the season, but it's also worth shouting out Pierce and the rest of Brooklyn's veterans for refusing to let go of the rope when things got rough, allowing them to stay in position to make this late-season charge. From Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press:
"I think a lot of teams with bad character, bad leadership in the locker room would've laid down a long time ago. Probably by Christmas would've been making summer plans," Pierce said. "But not this group."
And now, in just a couple weeks' time, some mid-table opponent — the Chicago Bulls, if current matchups hold — will find itself squaring off with a Nets squad that can present a slew of different offensive and defensive looks, including one NBA fans have seen time and again over the last 15 years — No. 34 with the ball in his hands as the clock winds down, stuttering and herky-jerkying his way to the elbow, then stepping back and somehow-still-after-all-these-years creating enough room to let loose a dagger as the seconds dwindle away. It's the kind of thing that tends to make opposing coaches and fan-bases sick to their stomachs.
- - - - - - -