The Nets always seem to be one massive distraction away from spiraling into turmoil, but they impressively have put their multitude of issues and a corresponding slow start behind them over the past two weeks.
Winners of eight of their last nine entering Friday’s visit to Toronto, the Nets have zoomed through a weak middle class in the Eastern Conference to a coveted top-4 spot, and one game behind No. 3 Cleveland at 17-12.
That’s an encouraging record considering they opened the season with five losses in seven games until Steve Nash was fired on Nov. 1. Despite also losing that night to the Bulls to fall to 2-6, they’ve gone 15-6 under replacement Jacque Vaughn, including last week’s win in Indiana with seven rotation regulars out of the lineup either due to injury or the dreaded load management designation.
So what does all of this mean for the final four months of the regular season, and does this recent stretch bode well for the Nets’ stated intention of vying for the first NBA championship in franchise history?
It certainly does, at least barring a catastrophic injury to MVP candidate and rescinded trade-seeker Kevin Durant — or Kyrie Irving failing to steer clear of further controversy after missing two-thirds of last season due to COVID vaccination non-compliance or getting suspended and missing eight games earlier this year for refusing to apologize for promoting an anti-Semitic film on his social-media accounts.
The two All-Stars are averaging nearly 37 minutes per appearance apiece for the season, however, making them the only two teammates logging that much playing time through Wednesday’s league action.
Vaughn probably needs to monitor and lower those numbers as the season progresses, especially if Brooklyn continues to establish itself near the top of the playoff pecking order.
Now that the Dec. 15 barrier making offseason signings available for trades has arrived, expect GM Sean Marks to continue seeking to add another scoring option and proven rebounder — such as Hawks forward John Collins, in whom the Nets are reportedly interested. Atlanta thus far has not been equally interested in a deal involving Joe Harris, according to The Athletic. The sharpshooter has nailed 16 of 27 (59.3 percent) from 3-point range over his past six appearances after connecting on just 31.8 percent in his first 20 appearances following two ankle surgeries last season.
The returns of Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton earlier this week, with veteran wing Royce O’Neale also slated to rejoin the team Friday in Toronto, lengthens Vaughn’s roster. But depth players such as Patty Mills, Cam Thomas, Edmond Sumner and Day’Ron Sharpe showed their worth and readiness in stealing that win Saturday night in Indiana.
The Nets’ remaining strength of schedule through Tuesday ranks as the sixth-easiest (.493 opponents winning percentage) in the league, according to Tankathon.
Still, 13 of their next 18 games will be played on the road through Jan. 25, so check back with us after that stretch to reassess whether the Nets are legitimate contenders in the East.
Today’s back page
🏀 Jalen Brunson’s heroics help Knicks stave off Bulls for fifth straight win
🏈 SERBY: Giants need a superhero performance from Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari
🏀 Kyrie Irving being ‘extremely engaged’ since return fueling Nets’ hot play
🏈 COSTELLO: What’s really keying Jets’ historic defensive turnaround
The world awaits
Soccer fans — and yes, Fox — will get to see a marquee final match on Sunday, with Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi seeking his elusive first World Cup title against France, the defending champions, and its superbly talented star Kylian Mbappe.
The French, who defeated upstart Morocco (2-0) on Wednesday, will look to become only the third repeat champion in World Cup history, and the first in six decades since Pele and Brazil went back-to-back in 1958 and 1962. (Italy was the other nation to win two straight World Cups, in 1934 and 1938).
Individually, all eyes will be on the 35-year-old Messi, who is playing in his fifth World Cup, and in the championship game for the second time. Argentina lost to Germany in the finals in Rio de Janeiro in 2014, after hoisting the trophy in 1978 and 1986.
Messi, is tied with Mbappe with five goals in six matches in the tournament, including a converted penalty kick — plus two beautiful setups — in Tuesday’s semifinal win over Croatia, who was a finalist in 2018 in Russia.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward potentially could shift to MLS side Miami — owned by David Beckham — in 2023, but Sunday’s finale could be the last World Cup appearance of his career.
Is he the one?
Less than a quarter of the regular season remains now for the two local NFL teams to find clarity about their respective quarterback situations.
The Giants, at least, don’t have a controversy at that position for the remainder of this season. Daniel Jones will be given the opportunity to get them back into the playoffs for only the second time in 11 seasons, beginning Sunday night in Washington.
The 25-year-old Jones probably hasn’t earned a long-term contract after the Giants declined his fifth-year option, but he’s played well enough — with a depleted offensive line and receiving corps — to at least get another crack in 2023.
Zach Wilson is another story, even if he’s been promoted back from the inactive list to No. 2 on the depth chart behind banged-up Mike White this week against the Lions.
With White nursing a rib injury suffered last week against Buffalo, the displaced Wilson could be called upon Sunday and thereafter to help keep the Jets’ playoff prospects alive. Given the joy with which his teammates have embraced White, Wilson’s career in green and white may depend on it.
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