The rough start has given way to new hope as the Nets are 14-5 since the calendar turned to 2014 to get 24-26 overall. The Atlantic Division has turned into a two-horse race with the Toronto Raptors holding a three-game leading over the Nets, who have inserted themselves into the Eastern Conference playoff mix with their good play of late.
Winners of four of their last five, the Nets now embark on what could be a make-or-break road trip beginning Thursday evening at the Chicago Bulls. They will play seven games in three times zones spanning 18 days, which includes this weekend's All-Star break. The 18 days between home games is the franchise's longest streak since the 1984-85 season.
"Right now, after you get past the All-Star break, it's the stretch run," said Paul Pierce, who scored a game-high 25 points on 9-for-11 shooting, including 5-for-5 from 3-point range. "It's gonna be a tough road trip, but this is that part of the season where on the road like that, you've gotta have a great sense of urgency. You've gotta know what's coming on, you've gotta expect it to be tough. We haven't been a great road team, so this is a moment of truth for us right now."
The long road trip is necessary thanks to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus invading Barclays Center. The Nets went on a similar road trip when the circus came to town last season, visiting eight cities in all four time zones over a 17-day span. They went 5-3 on that trip.
"Chicago is playing extremely well, they're well-coached, so this is a quick turnaround and this is a chance for us to get better on back-to-back games," Nets head coach Jason Kidd said. "A lot of guys, for the most part did't play a lot of minutes, so we'll see what happens tomorrow."
After the second end of the back-to-back in Chicago, Johnson and rookie forward Mason Plumlee will be in New Orleans this weekend taking part in All-Star festivities, Johnson in Sunday night's All-Star Game and Plumlee in Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge. The team will reconvene out west where the middle five games of the trip will be played.
After the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, a pair of back-to-backs will see the Nets play the Golden State Warriors (Feb. 22) and Los Angeles Lakers (Feb. 23), followed by the Portland Trail Blazers (Feb. 26) and Denver Nuggets (Feb. 27). The trip ends at the Milwaukee Bucks on March 1 before the Nets are back home for the Bulls on March 3.
When the Nets face the Bulls on March 3, they could be over .500 and in good position off a strong road trip, or even further below .500 and fighting for their playoff lives with 25 games to go in the regular season.
"This could really tell our season," Joe Johnson said after scoring eight points and sitting out the whole fourth quarter. "Make no mistake about it, man. We're gonna approach it very focused and ready."