Lichtenstein: Nets are firing on all cylinders - and can still get even better

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No NBA team wants to peak in February, but who says the Nets’ current eight-game winning streak (extended via Thursday night’s 129-92 demolition of visiting Orlando) is their best?

The last six victories came without the services of Kevin Durant, who is only an NBA All-Star captain and was leading Brooklyn in scoring at 29 points per game when he was sidelined with a hamstring injury. It’s hard to imagine that the Nets, who already boast the league’s most efficient offense at 118.2 points per 100 possessions, can be even more prolific – but then, you remember that KD has only shared the court with fellow superstars Kyrie Irving and James Harden for seven games, including the bizarre Toronto COVID game. Wait until the Big Three operate at maximum chemistry.

Credit rookie coach Steve Nash for unlocking all his complementary weapons, from the lights-out three-point shooting of wing Joe Harris (league-leading 50.9%) to the sneaky floater game of 6-foot-3 guard Bruce Brown (66.4% on field goal attempts within eight feet, per NBA.com).

For all the talk about how brutal the Nets’ defense was earlier in the season, they’re ranked tenth in defensive rating at 110.6 points per 100 possessions allowed since the start of their winning streak. While Orlando’s shooting performance Thursday (unofficial air ball count: five) set basketball back a decade, let’s not gloss over how Brooklyn managed to get key stops over their high-octane opponents during their five-game West Coast road trip.

Nash’s faith in his switch-heavy scheme used to look like obstinence, but is now being rewarded. The Nets are becoming more connected defensively each week, scram switching to get smaller guards out of mismatches down low and rotating out to three-point shooters at a higher execution rate. Harden’s basketball IQ and post defense are severely underrated on this end.

Now, Nash has unwrapped his newest toy: second-year center Nic Claxton, who missed the first 32 games of the season while dealing with right knee tendinopathy. Claxton got his feet wet in a 14-minute stint in the win over Sacramento on Tuesday, and then was instrumental in helping the Nets turn the tide after a sluggish first quarter versus the Magic with his defensive activity.

Claxton, whom Irving called “The Young Alchemist” (after a book he had Claxton read), filled the stat sheet with 10 points, three rebounds, four steals, and two blocked shots in just 15 minutes of action. More impressive than Claxton’s third quarter dunk where he nearly brought the basket down (and got a technical foul) was his block of a Terrence Ross three-point attempt in the second stanza. The length and timing required to foil Ross’ high release seemed preposterous.

The 6-foot 11 Claxton seems to have the same ability to stay with smaller ballhandlers on switches that Jarrett Allen displayed. Such versatility makes Claxton another viable option for Nash as DeAndre Jordan’s backup, even when Jeff Green, who has been excelling as a small-ball five, returns from his shoulder contusion.

General manager Sean Marks is still on the lookout for reinforcements on the wing. The team waived Iman Shumpert and Andre Roberson on Tuesday before their contracts became guaranteed, but both players reportedly will sign 10-day contracts after clearing waivers in order for Marks to maintain flexibility for the trade and buyout markets.

I’m less bullish than some as to whether the Nets will land anyone impactful with either their midlevel exception or Spencer Dinwiddie’s disabled player exception. With many more teams competing for the extra play-in round slots, it would be logical to assume that the supply of such players won’t be as plentiful as in prior seasons.

Then again, does it matter? The 22-12 Nets are just a half-game behind Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference’s top seed, and they will face the league’s second-softest schedule over their remaining 38 games.

The Nets are really good now, and, with reasonably good health, they should be even better later.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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