All seemed lost.
After an active offseason that resulted in the arrival of veteran All-Stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, as well as 2009 Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry, the Brooklyn Nets came into the season with championship ambitions, ready to challenge the likes of Eastern Conference elites Indiana Pacers and two-time defending champions Miami Heat.
Yet there they were, reeling from a humiliating 21-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs in front of a national audience on New Year’s Eve. The defeat left them at an atrocious 10-21 — only three teams had a worse record than they did in what turned out to be a laughable Eastern Conference.
But the wounds ran deeper than the record demonstrated. All-Star Center Brook Lopez’s foot injury put him out for the season. Coach Jason Kidd was on the hot seat as many wondered whether he was ready to lead a team as a head coach. Kidd cemented a hall of fame career leading teams as an elite point guard, but made the unprecedented immediate transition from player to head coach. At times, it seemed as if he simply could not hold his team together.
It turns out all that was needed was a flip of the calendar.
The Nets started the New Year off with a surprising win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that many expect to go deep into the playoffs, if not win the championship altogether.
Brooklyn went on to stay undefeated through the first five games of the New Year, but it was no cakewalk. Along the way, they halted a 10-game winning streak held by the Golden State Warriors — a playoff contending team in the much tougher Western Conference — and outlasted the Heat in double overtime.
Following the five-game winning streak to start off the year, a loss to the Atlantic division– leading Toronto Raptors proved to be only a minor bump in the road as the Nets ripped off another five-game winning streak to improve to 10-1 to start off the year through late January — the best start to the year of all NBA teams.
Since then, they have cooled off but have still been playing much better basketball compared to their performance in the first two months of the season. Entering tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls, the Nets are 18-8 since the turn of the calendar.
More importantly, they are now one game below .500 and are the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Because of the mediocrity of the conference, they are only four games behind the third seed.
The Nets’ season that seemed destined to be a major disappointment after that loss to the Spurs has been salvaged. Although reaching the .500 mark is nothing to brag about, it can still be viewed as a major accomplishment given how far in the gutter they were just two months ago.
It would be foolish to claim that they are guaranteed a deep-run into the playoffs despite the weakness of the conference. But one thing is for sure: a run at the championship seems a lot less far-fetched now than it did two months ago.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 3 print edition. Tony Chau is a senior editor. Email him at [email protected]