The Eastern Conference playoff race this year has been as contentious and unpredictable as ever. The No. 2 seed is only five games ahead of the No. 7 seed. The Brooklyn Nets are currently the No. 4 seed, two-and-a-half games behind the Atlantic Division-leading New York Knicks and two-and-a-half games in front of the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks.
With 19 games remaining in the regular season and a playoff berth in the bag—12.5 games in front of the ninth-place Raptors—the Nets should look for a favorable first-round series.
Here's two matchups that favor the Nets and two that hurt Brooklyn's chances of advancing.
The No. 3-seeded Pacers are one of the most versatile teams in the NBA, but the Nets have defeated them in both meetings this season, including one without Deron Williams. Brooklyn's defense matches up well against the athletic front line.
The Pacers lack a go-to guy at the end of the game, enabling the Nets to play tight man-to-man defense and force erratic shots. In their first meeting, the Nets trailed by twelve in the second half, but allowed only 11 points in the fourth quarter for an impressive win.
Overall, the Nets have smothered the Pacers, limiting them to 38 percent from the field. Gerald Wallace has effectively shut down All-Star Paul George, holding him to 7-of-28 shooting and 20 points.
Brook Lopez has been dominant in the paint, averaging 20 points and 8.5 rebounds.
The Nets have won two out of three games against the Hawks this season. Brooklyn has exposed Atlanta's weak guard play and poor perimeter defense. Williams has gotten to the basket with ease.
Expect a motivated Joe Johnson to shine against his former team, especially with Kyle Korver guarding the elusive shooting guard.
The frontcourt duo of Al Horford and Josh Smith has contained Lopez, but Atlanta lacks depth behind their stars. Backup Andray Blatche has totaled 41 points on a remarkable 19-of-23 shooting against the Hawks this season. His combination of speed and size has been too much for Atlanta, who put a plethora of guys on him in their meeting on March 9, to no avail.
If the season ended today, the Nets would host the No. 5-seeded Bulls, who have defeated Brooklyn two out of three times this season. The swarming Tom Thibodeau defense has limited the Nets to an average of 87 points per game. Chicago has held Williams to 13-of-37 shooting by preventing his dribble penetration and forcing contested jump shots.
Lopez has had his way with Joakim Noah in the paint, averaging 20 points on 51 percent from the field.
But Chicago's balanced attack has handled the Brooklyn defense. They have a strong interior presence with Carlos Boozer and Noah, and use three-point threats like Luol Deng, Marcos Belinelli and Nate Robinson to stretch the floor. Their impeccable ball movement makes the team difficult to contain.
To make matters worse, the Bulls expect their superstar Derrick Rose to return in the coming weeks.
The Nets have fared well against Boston this season, taking two out of three. But the playoffs are based on experience, experience and experience. Since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, the Celtics have been on a tear, winning 14 of 19 games, including defeats of the Heat, Clippers, Bulls and Pacers.
Without Rondo, the Celtics have touted one of the most balanced attacks in the league. Avery Bradley has added stability at point guard and become a key playmaker on offense and defense. Since entering the starting lineup, Jeff Green has averaged 15 points per game and played tremendous on-ball defense.
Boston's leading scorers and team leaders are still future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. This team is gritty, plays rock-solid defense and knows how to win.
No one wants to play the Celtics come playoff time. Especially the Nets, who are still in their first season together.