NEW YORK (AP) — Brook Lopez sat on the bench in Newark last season, recuperating from a foot injury as his the Brooklyn-bound Nets were on their way to a 12-win season and his name popping in every imaginable trade rumor for Dwight Howard.
A year later, Lopez had 20 points and nine rebounds to help the playoff bound Nets hold off the Detroit Pistons 103-99 on Wednesday night.
Brooklyn is headed back to the playoffs after a six-year absence, hosting the opener of the first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday.
“It’s really been an amazing journey,” Lopez said. “It’s very surreal to think of the power point presentations they’d show us when the management would come in and show us renderings of the Barclays Center and all the those factoids about how big Brooklyn is and all that stuff and everything.
“To be finally here now and be on the verge of the playoffs, it’s pretty incredible.”
Reggie Evans scored 15 points 15, Kris Humphries had 11 points and Joe Johnson added 10 for Brooklyn, winners of two straight.
Nets general manager Billy King was able to convince star point guard Deron Williams to resist going back home to Texas and taking less money from Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks. King then swung a deal with Atlanta for Joe Johnson, re-signed Gerald Wallace, whom he acquired last February from Portland in exchange for a first-round draft pick that turned out to be Damian Lillard. Lopez agreed to a four-year max deal and Kris Humphries signed a two-year deal instead of inking a contract with Charlotte.
All part of a plan to compete for a championship, the lone goal of billionaire Russian owner Mikhail Prohkorov.
But first, the fourth-seeded Nets will have to go through a tough Chicago team that has been without star Derrick Rose, who tore his ACL in Game 1 of their first round series against Philadelphia last April.
The Bulls clinched the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference when Atlanta lost to the New York Knicks. Chicago won three of four against Brooklyn this season, including two at home.
The three losses were by one point, four points and two points, respectively, and Brooklyn will have its hands full with a Bulls team that is looking forward to getting Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson back to normal after injuries had slowed them down recently.
“They’ve beat us three times so we got our work cut out for us. Anything can happen in a seven game series,” Williams said.
The wildcard in all of this is Rose, whose return is still unknown although he has been practicing with the team.
“His situation is tough. He hasn’t played all season. I think Nate (Robinson) and Kirk (Hinrich) have been doing a great job at the point for them, so it’s all about timing and rhythm and confidence,” Williams said. “I think it’s tough for him right now. Derrick Rose is a former MVP, so you have to think if he plays he’s going to help that team.”
For the fourth straight season, the Detroit Pistons will be missing the playoffs and going on an early vacation.
Will Bynum had 23 points for the Pistons, who snapped a four-game winning streak. Andre Drummond scored 13 and Greg Monroe added 12 points and 12 rebounds.
According to a report on Yahoo! Sports, Pistons coach Lawrence Frank reportedly told team owner Tom Gores and general manager Joe Dumars that he wasn’t interested in leading the team for a third year if the fourth year on his contract was not picked up.
After the game, Frank sounded as if changes were imminent while describing the season as one that was hard, “both professionally and personally.
“When you look at improvement, it always starts internal improvement,” Frank said. “We have to get better, coaches (and) players. Obviously this is the first time in five years where the franchise, we have an opportunity to get better from the outside and have significant cap space. There’s always trades. There’s always the draft. So there’s a lot of different ways to do it but it will take time.”
Brooklyn led by as many as 21 points and almost saw their reserves squander a 15 point lead with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter after Blatche’s 3-pointer made it 103-88.
However, the Pistons scored the game’s last 11 points, capped by Kim English’s free throw with 53 seconds to go. Brooklyn then committed an 8-second violation, but the Pistons missed their final three shots.
“We somewhat ended on a good note winning four out of five. We have a good, young core group here but we are sure disappointed,” Pistons forward Kyle Singler said.
All five regular starters were on the floor for Brooklyn after Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo followed a custom of many playoff-bound teams and gave them the night off Monday night against Philadelphia. They played the entire first quarter against the Pistons and opened up the second half before exiting with 2:33 remaining in the third quarter with Reggie Evans staying behind.
The Nets’ last playoff appearance came during the 2006-07 season. Riddled with injuries, the Nets fell to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs that year.
For Johnson, when the playoffs roll around Saturday, it’s championship or bust.
“You don’t win that gold bar, then it wasn’t successful,” Johnson said. “We’re going to take it one series at a time, one game at a time and just try to have fun with it.”
Before the Nets opened their 2008-09 season, the organization broke up the team and traded away Jason Kidd to Dallas and Richard Jefferson to Milwaukee, going with a youth movement. Vince Carter was gone weeks after the season ended.
If Brooklyn advances past the first round, they will likely face the top-seeded and defending champion Miami Heat and James.
Tied at 18 after Stuckey’s layup with 3:34 left in the first quarter, the Nets closed the opening period on a 13-0 run — keyed by Gerald Wallace, who had been struggling all season long.
Wallace was on the receiving end of an alley-oop from Williams to make it 20-18. He then got a steal and took it to the rim for a one-handed dunk to give the Nets a 20-18 lead with 2:35 remaining in the quarter. Wallace then got a block and after the Pistons were turned the ball over on a shot-clock violation, he fed Lopez for a jumper to extend the lead to 24-18.
After a pair of 3-point misses by Detroit, Wallace picked off Khris Middleton’ pass and got an assist off of Williams’ 3 that made it 27-18.
NOTES: Brooklyn went (26-15) at home this season. … Throughout the night, Brooklyn implored fans to dress all in black as part of their “Blackout in Brooklyn” theme when they host their first playoff game in the borough.