While most of the Nets envisioned clinching a playoff spot regardless of how bad the first two months were, doubt crept into Joe Johnson’s mind during those trying times even as he tried to be optimistic.
“Honestly I couldn’t even see it,” Johnson said. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Eventually it’s going to turn around and it’s going to turn for us,’ and eventually it did at the start of the New Year. This is a different team, our mindset is different and the way we play is different.”
Consider Tuesday night the culmination of the 2014 resurgence for the Nets. And it was only fitting on the night a playoff berth was clinched with a 105-96 victory over the Rockets that Johnson morphed into “Joe Jesus” again with a 32-point performance.
“You know we expected to be in the playoffs,” Paul Pierce said. “This is just another step toward our goal. We’re happy with the way we’ve been playing over the last couple of months at home against quality ball clubs, but as far as making the playoffs, this is something we already expected to do. We’re happy to make the playoffs but that’s just a small goal of ours.”
“That’s something that we felt that we could accomplish as a team,” head coach Jason Kidd said. “Unfortunately we didn’t start off well and I guess some people didn’t believe it, so we just stayed the course.”
The Nets have gone from 10-21 to 40-33, the best record in the East since Jan. 1. It started when Johnson hit the game-winning shot to kick off this run in Oklahoma City.
“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “It means a lot to honestly clinch because we’ve come so far. We’ve been in an uphill climb pretty much the whole year. We’ve been playing catch up and to kind of clinch is somewhat of a relief. We understand we have a lot more work left to do.”
“We expected it the beginning of the year and we’ve been expecting it lately the way we’ve been playing,” Deron Williams said.
Coming so far also involves how the Nets have evolved at home. Booed often for poor third quarters in double digit losses, including an embarrassing 95-78 loss on Christmas to the Bulls, Brooklyn has won a franchise-record 14 straight home games and 21 of its last 23 since the Christmas Day loss.
“It means a lot because I remember a time when we couldn’t get a win here in our own building, so this is definitely a special moment,” Johnson said.
The season has been strange as the Nets turnaround has happened while Brook Lopez has been out of action with a broken foot. The injury turned the Nets into a so-called small ball team, where Johnson can post up as part of his game.
“It’s the strangest [season] because we had a moment when we were really just terrible and then we had moments when we were pretty good,” Johnson said. “So I’m glad the better part came in the second half and we’ll just keep to try keep climbing.”
Now that they’re in the playoffs, the next step will be attempting to secure home-court advantage for the first round. The Nets had home court last year but still lost to the Bulls, who they trail by 1 1/2 games for fourth in the East.
To reach this point, the Nets scored 100 points for the ninth straight game, picked up their 18th win against a Western Conference opponent and have held a double-digit lead in every game of their home-winning streak.
The Nets achieved their playoff spot by riding the hot hand of Johnson, who had his fourth game of at least 30 points even though it seemed quiet at times. He scored 13 points in the third while making 5-of-7 shots as part of a 13-of-21 night from the floor.
Johnson’s performance extended a 54-51 lead to 83-79 before Brooklyn pulled away in the fourth. His biggest basket was a corner 3-pointer that stopped a 12-2 Houston run in the waning seconds of the third.
“It wasn’t quiet to us,” Pierce said. “We took notice.”
Follow Nets beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.