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Nets tighten defense to slow Bulls, reverse seemingly lost season

Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

Carlos Boozer and the Bulls were held to 80 points in a loss to the surging Nets and Paul Pierce.

Chicago

80
Final

NEW YORK -- In late December, the Nets locker room was a wasteland. Loss after loss piled up, each more humiliating than the last, an abysmal six defeats in a seven-game stretch that culminated with a 21-point drubbing in San Antonio on New Year's Eve. Facing reporters night after night had become akin to facing a verbal firing squad.

This was what Mikhail Prokhorov's money bought, screamed tabloid headlines. A $189 million disaster. Better to gut the team now, keyboard executives urged on social media. Try and recoup some of the draft picks the Nets shipped out to acquire the broken bodies of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Start the rebuild now, before being forced into it later.

But something happened on the Nets' road to wreckage. They became respectable.

On Monday, Brooklyn clipped Chicago 96-80. It was the Nets' third straight win, fourth in their last five, and it pushed the team to .500 for the first time since early November. Suddenly, Brooklyn's locker room has become a far more pleasant place. Deron Williams cracked jokes with a ball boy. Alan Anderson laughed at Joe Johnson's orange leather pants. A thick crowd of reporters that surrounded Jason Collins shared laughs with the recently signed center before dissipating quickly. It seems (gasp!) an openly gay player is not the distraction some purported it would be.

Things are good in Brooklyn. The Nets are not where they hoped they would be -- spend $189 million on payroll and luxury tax penalties and anything less than 45 wins by the All-Star break is a disappointment -- but they are far from where they were.

"We have overcome a lot this season," Johnson said. "To be .500 at this point, hopefully we can keep climbing, keep building and try and become a better team."

The last two months, Brooklyn has done just that. The Nets are 19-8 since Jan. 1, including a pristine 11-2 at home. In the aftermath of Brook Lopez's season-ending foot injury, the Nets' small starting lineup has been quietly effective. Utilizing Pierce at power forward and Garnett -- when he's healthy -- at center, Brooklyn has ratcheted up the defense. Since the calendar turned to '14, the Nets are surrendering 6.1 fewer points per game, averaging nearly two more steals and forcing nearly three more turnovers.

Nearly every Nets player is showing new signs of life. Pierce shot almost 50 percent from the floor in February. Johnson has shouldered a bigger load in the offense and continues to rank as one of the NBA's most clutch crunch-time shooters. Shaun Livingston capably filled in for Williams when the Nets point guard missed a stretch of games in January and has complemented him well since.

Andray Blatche, Mason Plumlee and Andrei Kirilenko have all contributed.

Credit Jason Kidd, too. Brooklyn's coach was justifiably slapped around for questionable decisions early in the season. The firing -- sorry, "reassigning"-- of longtime ally Lawrence Frank was bungled, and for a while it appeared Kidd was close to facing a mutiny from a locker room that sounded like it had little faith in him. But Kidd's decision to go small has worked and the Nets have established an offensive identity as a team that plays through its pool of talented guards and swingmen. And while Garnett has been in and out of the lineup lately, Kidd has done a solid job of managing his minutes, coaxing KG's 37-year old body to the brink of the playoffs.

Inside the locker room, there is a growing belief that this is a team that can make some postseason noise. Brooklyn desperately wants to avoid a first round series with Indiana or Miami -- at 29-29, the Nets are alone in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, three games up on seventh-place Charlotte, 3 1/2 games back of third-seeded Toronto. If the Nets can get to the playoffs, can get through the first round, there is a sense that their collection of aging stars can find a second gear, that the hatred of Miami that coursed through the bodies of Pierce and Garnett in Boston will give the two stars a shot in the arm in a series against the Heat in the playoffs.

Maybe it's wishful thinking. Maybe the Nets' roller-coaster ride of a season is destined for another dip. For now, though, the ride continues its ascent. A forgettable season has a chance to be redeemed.

SI Now: Bulls head Eastern Conference surge
On Monday's SI Now, NBA producer Matt Dollinger talks about the surprising east coast revival led by the Chicago Bulls, Jason Collins playing in Brooklyn for the first time tonight and Evan Turner looking to find his stride with the Pacers.

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