By Steve Lichtenstein
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Well at least Brook Lopez was able to walk out of the arena on Wednesday night without crutches.  The Brooklyn Nets’ center, whose 2011-12 season was delayed 32 games due to a right foot injury suffered in the preseason finale against the New York Knicks, exited this game unscathed.

Which is more than I can say for his Knick counterpart, Tyson Chandler, whose knee-on-knee collision with Nets forward Gerald Wallace marred the Knicks’ 97-95 overtime victory at Nassau Coliseum.  Both teams concluded their exhibition slates prior to their highly-anticipated matchup in Brooklyn on November 1 to open the regular season.

While the Knicks will definitely be worrying about Chandler’s knee — which was diagnosed with a bone bruise following today’s MRI — the Nets have different concerns now that Lopez seems to be fully recovered. For the first time in Lopez’s career, the Nets enter a season with high expectations.

A new building, a new depth chart and new standards.

General manager Billy King dumped jigsaw puzzle pieces on coach Avery Johnson’s lap.  It’s Johnson’s job to put them together. Not that I expected the job to be done this quickly, certainly not after a crazy preseason schedule that included five games in seven days.

However, after a solid three-game start that showcased their talent upgrade, the Nets limped to the finish line, showing little improvement in the key areas that will define their season.

The most troubling is on the defensive end, where Johnson has to be staying up late trying to figure out what to do with Lopez. Even with two healthy feet, Lopez is no more than a statue defending the pick-and-roll.  I found his attempts to corral Knicks point guard Raymond Felton last night a useful teaching tool to my 13-year-old son as to what not to do in those situations. Felton abused Lopez several times when Lopez hung back in the paint following the high screen, and that allowed Felton to either plant for an open shot or get inside the seven-footer for a layup.

I could see the difference when the screen was set by the man guarded by Nets forward Kris Humphries.  Humphries, though not highly regarded for his foot speed, at least was able to force Felton to get rid of the ball by showing on the opposite side of the pick and hustling back to defend the roll.

In a division that also includes established point guards Rajon Rondo of Boston and Jrue Holiday of Philadelphia, Johnson is in need of a better strategy, as he should expect a steady diet of high screens to isolate Lopez. Johnson also should not be pleased with the development of the offense.  The Nets had a mere eight assists last night.  The Knicks, with ball-stopper Carmelo Anthony playing 32 of the first 37 minutes, had far superior ball movement.  They didn’t use unfamiliarity as an excuse, despite having only two returning players from a season ago (the Nets have five) once Chandler went down in the first minute.

It’s not because the Brooklyn playbook is rife with “Iso-Joe” calls to accommodate newly-acquired guard Joe Johnson, as initially feared by some.  No, there’s also plenty of Iso-Brook’s and Iso-Deron’s (Williams) in there.  And when the reserves came in to decide the game in the fourth quarter and overtime, similar plays were run for MarShon Brooks and Tyshawn Taylor.

The player who continues to be lost in the mix is Wallace, who acts like he’s imprisoned on weak-side corner island.  Once again, more than half his field-goal attempts were from beyond the three-point line, which is not his game.  He’s not Steve Novak. Wallace seems to get more involved when he moves to the power forward slot.  He’s a bit undersized, listed at 6-foot-7, but going small is not unusual in the NBA.  Wallace has been a motivated defender since joining the Nets in a trade-deadline deal last season.  With Wallace’s tenacity and athleticism, I don’t believe the Nets would lose that much in rebounding despite Humphries’ gaudy numbers in that area.

The Nets should also continue to encourage backup center Andray Blatche, who signed on as a free agent after wearing out his welcome in Washington.  Blatche has impressed with his all-court game, but I can tell that he doesn’t yet have Johnson’s total trust.  Every fabulous steal or block seems to be followed by a brain cramp that leads to an easy opposition score.

At least, unlike last year when Johnson had few options to solve the multitude of problems he encountered — especially after Lopez was lost — the Nets can look within to find the right mix.  The preseason is now history, with the results meaningless. They’re relatively healthy and ready to embark on a new era in their new castle. But that doesn’t mean we should completely ignore what we saw like this is the NFL, where teams routinely fear putting anything on film that might give their first opponent an advantage.

If the Nets were indeed holding some things back, it might take two possessions before a smart coach recognizes the new sets and makes adjustments.  It’s not like Wallace was bricking those three-pointers on purpose so the Knicks won’t run out on him in a similar spot on November 1.

And Lopez won’t be able to take any speed and agility pills — at least not legally — once the season begins.  It’s up to Johnson to supply the fix if the Nets want to make a big splash in their new pool.

Where does Lopez rank among the top centers in the league? Let us know in the comments section below…

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