By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Nets knew they were playoff-bound two games into their eight-game, 17-day odyssey last week.
But they haven't exactly been resting on their laurels during the grueling journey, which continues in Portland on Wednesday night as Brooklyn looks to match the franchise record for road wins in a single season.
"Of course I'm pleased the Nets have made the playoffs, but I can't say I'm surprised," said team owner Mikhail Prokhorov after our borough's first major pro sports franchise in over 55 years qualified for the postseason field of 16 when Philadelphia lost in Denver last Thursday night. "We have a lot of talent, which is really coming together now and starting to jell. I am confident that the team's best days on the court are still ahead."
Prokhorov, who mandated on Opening Night at the Barclays Center back in November that an Eastern Conference Finals berth would be an acceptable level of accomplishment for Season One in Brooklyn, has already fulfilled the first of many goals since taking over majority ownership of the Nets from Downtown real estate magnate Bruce Ratner 3 1/2 years ago.
Though he decreed that he would make the Nets an NBA championship team within his first five years at the helm, Prokhorov has to be heartened that the team's move to the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues will feature at least a first-round playoff series, something the team has been chasing since 2007.
Fortunately for the Russian billiionaire, his team isn't stopping to smell the playoff roses either.
At the midway point of the longest trek in team history, the Nets have posted impressive wins in Detroit and Dallas, suffered a gutwrenching loss in Los Angeles to the Pacific Division-leading Clippers and rebounded with a narrow escape in Phoenix on Sunday evening. At 3-1, Brooklyn will take on the Blazers knowing they can head back to Brooklyn early next month with at least a .500 mark on the trip.
''A win is a win. We will take it,'' noted point guard Deron Williams after putting up 20 points and dishing out 11 assists while committing just one turnover against the Suns as the Nets eked out a 102-100 victory to improve to an Atlantic Division-best 19-15 away from the friendly confines of the Barclays Center.
''It is a good start [to the trip]," added Williams, who is playing like an MVP runner-up candidate (the annual award may as well be in LeBron James' trophy case) since undergoing treatment on his swollen ankles and receiving a juice cleansing during the All-Star break. "It wasn't the way we wanted to win it, but it is a win none the less, and puts us 3-1, which is pretty good on this road trip.''
The Nets have never won more than 20 road games in a single season, and haven't cleared the .500 mark away from home in any campaign. They'll need just three wins in nine road contests to guarantee no worse than a break-even record in that category.
But the franchise's star-crossed past has been relegated to prologue since they first stepped foot in their state-of-the-art arena. Brooklyn trails only NBA-best Miami in road wins among Eastern Conference teams, and has won seven of its last 10 games overall during the most crucial stretch of this historic season.
Following their visit to Portland, the Nets will be in Denver on Friday, drop in on Utah Saturday and stop by Cleveland next Wednesday night to cap the trip. After that, five of their final eight regular-season contests will be at home as they continue their quest to reel in the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks and secure home-court advantage for the opening round of the playoffs.
Joe Johnson, Brooklyn's "Mr. Big Shot" during the first half of the season, sat out Sunday's win in Phoenix with a bruised thigh to go along with the painful heel injury he's been dealing with since the break. Even with their third-leading scorer absent, however, the Nets found a way to hold off the Suns, who nearly made up a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit before Reggie Evans secured the clinching rebound off a missed free throw as time expired.
"We got a lot of points (45) off the bench [Wednesday night], and that's just how it has to be sometimes to get wins," said power forward Kris Humphries, who saw his first extended action in weeks in Phoenix after interim coach P.J. Carlesimo relegated him to the bench in favor of playing Evans and backup center Andray Blatche more during the stretch run to the playoffs.
"I was a little stiff, and it took me awhile to get loose, but my teammates found me with passes, and I hit some free throws to start and roll with it," added Humphries after finishing with a season-high 17 points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes.
Injuries to All-Star center Brook Lopez, forward Gerald Wallace, Johnson and Williams' nagging maladies throughout the first half have steeled the Nets for a serious run in the East. Blessed by an army of reserves assembled by general manager Billy King during his $330 million summer spending spree, Brooklyn boasts one of the deepest and most productive rosters in the NBA.
"Everyone gave us good minutes -- C.J., Hump, all the way down the line. They really saved us," Lopez said after scoring 21 points in Sunday's win. "Considering the way we lost [Saturday night in Los Angeles], at the end of the game and in crunch time, it was good that we won the way we did."
"I know my teammates can handle their business, so I'm going to do this thing right," Johnson said of his recovery. "It's frustrating for me and this is the most important part of the season. I always want to be out there with the guys. I hate sitting out and watching. That's the hardest part."
Carlesimo, who will doubtlessly get some Coach of the Year votes for his guidance of this team after the firing of coach Avery Johnson in late December, knows that clinching the 17th playoff berth and the winningest road record in Nets history aren't the ultimate goals for Brooklyn this year. They're simply stops on the road to where this unit wants to be when late April and early May arrive.
"The worst feeling in this league is the last game [of the regular season when you haven't reached the playoffs]," said Carlesimo, who hasn't led a team into the postseason since guiding Portland to the last of three straight first-round ousters in 1997. "It makes a difference [knowing you're in]. People are going to walk around feeling better."
Hoop du Jour: Despite their success on the road and their recent hot streak, the Nets (41-29) remain two games back of New York (42-26) in the chase for the Atlantic crown. ... Carlesimo admitted after the Phoenix game that he was going to take it slow with G Johnson. "Every time I ask Joe how he feels, he says, 'It's OK.' He wants to play, which is good," the coach noted. "He doesn't want to use [the injury] as an excuse. If you look at the numbers, it's not the same Joe. We need to get Joe Johnson back, healthy." ... G C.J. Watson scored 14 points off the bench Wednesday after G Keith Bogans (3 points in 30 minutes) made the start alongside G Williams in place of Johnson.