5 Players Who Must Step Up for Brooklyn Nets' Remaining Games

Walker Harrison@WalkWearsCrocsContributor IIIMarch 1, 2014

5 Players Who Must Step Up for Brooklyn Nets' Remaining Games

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    The Brooklyn Nets are in a unique set of circumstances thanks to the congested Eastern Conference. If they play well for the remaining weeks of the regular season, they could rise as high as the No. 3 seed for the playoffs.

    If they play poorly, they could quickly sink to the bottom of the standings and find themselves completely out of the postseason race. Such is the nature of the East these days.

    Obviously, the Nets chances come down to the play of the 13 men filling out their roster. However, some players must especially improve during the season's final stages if the Nets are to attain their goal.

    The performance of the following five players between now and mid-April will determine whether the Nets make the playoffs and what seed they secure. They are ordered in ascending impact on the Nets' hopes.

Marcus Thornton

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    The Nets acquired Marcus Thornton on February 19 in exchange for Jason Terry (as well as Reggie Evans), and the team now needs Thornton to provide what Terry couldn't: a scoring spark off the bench.

    Although Thornton was having a poor season for the Sacramento Kings prior to being traded, he has enough of a history as a scorer to inspire hope for an offensive revival on the Nets.

    Currently, Brooklyn has a middling offense—they rank 16th in offensive efficiency with 102.8 points per 100 possessions. Thornton's ability to catch fire from the perimeter not only allows him to score in bunches, but it forces opponents to spread the floor, creating opportunities for Brooklyn's other shooters.

    Plus, the Nets don't have that deep of a backcourt. Deron Williams, the starting point guard and face of the franchise, has battled ankle injuries all season. More recently, Shaun Livingston bruised his tailbone. It's possible that Thornton could be forced into a more prominent role if either of those two are sidelined, especially since the other guard, Marquis Teague—2.9 points per game, .319 field goal percentage—isn't a viable option.

    Of course, all of this speculation is contingent on Thornton leaving his .381 field goal percentage in Sacramento, and reanimating the player who averaged over 18 points a game just two seasons ago.

    Otherwise, the Nets may continue to be mediocre on offense.

Mason Plumlee

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    The Nets' turnaround this season has been somewhat attributable to the use of smaller lineups by head coach Jason Kidd.

    Unfortunately, small ball is not a sustainable plan of action for Brooklyn.  The Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls, three of the five teams ahead of the Nets in the East, are solid rebounding squads, and all three would cause problematic front-court matchups in a potential playoff series. Already, the Nets are 4-15 against top-10 rebounding teams.

    Mason Plumlee might be the answer. Plumlee was the victim of Kidd's lineup tinkering in January, seeing his minutes drop to fewer than nine per game. The Nets will need to rely more heavily on Plumlee in the absence of star center Brook Lopez for rebounding and rim protection down the stretch.

    Of the Nets' other three players taller than 6'10", two are 35 or older (Kevin Garnett and Jason Collins), and one (Andray Blatche) has a bloated 106.1 defensive rating this season.

    The Nets already might be leaning in Plumlee's direction. His minutes in February rose to 16.9 per contest, and he scored in double figures in four of the last seven games, including a 22-point, 13-rebound effort against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 9.

    If the Nets are going to contend with the conference's more physical teams, Plumlee must show that kind of production more consistently.

Andrei Kirilenko

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    The 2013-14 season has not been ideal for AK-47.

    Andrei Kirilenko knew he was going to see less playing time joining a star-studded veteran team like the Nets. But then he missed most of the first two months of the season with back spasms. In limited minutes, he's seen his scoring average drop to 5.7 points per game, more than six points below his career average.

    There's some gray area to Kirilenko's seemingly disappointing numbers, though. He remains an efficient two-way player: He is shooting 53 percent from the floor and playing his usual brand of irritating long-armed defense at the other end. He is one of only two Nets with a positive plus-minus rating. Finally, Brooklyn is 10-3 in games during which Kirilenko logs at least 20 minutes.

    So Kirilenko doesn't need to improve his play, per se, but just bring the same performance at an increased volume. And it appears that the increased volume might be coming. After not playing more than 25 minutes in a single game all season, Kirilenko broke that mark three times in the month of February alone. He responded well to the bump in playing time, shooting almost 62 percent during the month and notching a double-double in his only start of the season, a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb 23.

    On an aging roster, bench production is of the utmost importance. It appears that Jason Kidd will rely more on Kirilenko in the second half, so the Russian veteran will need to continue giving quality minutes as the postseason nears.

Paul Pierce

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    Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been lumped together all season by the media as the ancient tandem who arrived via trade from Boston. The reality is, however, that while both are nearing retirement, Pierce has more quality basketball left in him.

    Pierce has played 1,471 minutes in 51 games this season to Garnett's 1,027 minutes in 29 games. Pierce has played over 30 minutes in 23 games, something Garnett has done only once.

    Therefore, it's more appropriate to demand a higher level of play from Pierce than it is from Garnett. It's no secret that Pierce's skills have eroded somewhat since leaving the Celtics. He's seen a significant drop-off in points, rebounds and assists that simply playing fewer minutes doesn't entirely explain.

    Any measurement of shootingfield goal percentage, three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, etc.,—indicates that Pierce's shots are finding more rim this year. As a result of Pierce's struggles, the small forward position is by far the team's least productive.

    Pierce needs to start playing more efficient offense for two reasons. The first is obvious: the Nets are not an excellent offensive team and need as many weapons as possible to surround Deron Williams. But Pierce also needs to earn minutes on offense so that the Nets can keep him on the floor for his defense.

    Even if The Truth isn't the defender he used to be, he's in six of the seven Nets rotations that allow less than a point per possession. If Brooklyn is lucky, Pierce will smell the approaching postseason and heighten his performance.

Deron Williams

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    The Brooklyn Nets will go as far as Deron Williams takes them.

    That statement will most likely be true for the remaining three-and-a-half years of the star point guard's $98 million contract, and it is definitely true this season. 

    The value of Williams' play to the team has been quite evident this year. The Nets are 15-7 when Williams shoots over 40 percent from the floor, and 2-11 when he shoots under 39 percent. They are 15-6 when he turns the ball over fewer than three times and 1-8 when he has at least four turnovers.

    The most telling statistic? Williams' has a plus-50 plus-minus this season, while every other Net, save Kirilenko, is in the red. 

    The reason the rest of the season hinges so much on Williams' play is that the Brooklyn front office still believesor is forced to believe by his massive contractthat the face of their franchise has the capacity to be a top-five point guard in the NBA. Besides, it was less than three seasons ago that Williams was averaging over 20 points and 10 assists a night.

    On many evenings, the Nets' optimism is warranted. Williams cuts into the lanes and dishes to open shooters or drains pull-up three-pointers. Then there are the nights where Williams appears shackled by his ankle injuries or, worse, is forced to watch from the bench, wearing a suit instead of shorts.

    Despite the ups and downs of their season, the Nets do have a blueprint for ascending the Eastern Conference standings. To have a puncher's chance against the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers in the postseason is rather simple: Brooklyn needs to pray for Williams' health and the point guard in turn must perform like the superstar he once was.