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Lichtenstein: Nets’ Health Crucial To Maintaining Rise As Competition Stiffens

(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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As the clock wound down on the Nets’ victory over the Suns at the Barclays Center last night, I stayed on the YES Network broadcast to get the answers to two questions: Would the Nets eclipse a 20-point spread for a third straight game for the first time in their history as an NBA franchise? And would they be able to find five healthy bodies to put on the floor to accomplish that feat?

The answers to both were affirmative, but by the slimmest of margins.

Yes, thanks to a Luke Zeller miss at the buzzer, the Nets did set the record with a 99-79 final, marking their fifth win in a row overall and seventh in eight games under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo. It also extended the Nets’ undefeated streak to 14 games over sub-.500 clubs.

Unfortunately, this one might have come at a heavy cost. And who knows what the Nets will have in their bank once the schedule stiffens? There aren’t too many talent-deficient clubs like Phoenix on the remainder of the Nets’ January slate.

The next few weeks, starting with a home game versus Central Division-leading Indiana on Sunday, will be a better determinant of how far the Nets have come since the switch to Carlesimo from fired coach Avery Johnson.

Besides, haven’t we (ok, I) already been fooled by these Nets in a similar situation? For it was the uptick in competition, as much as it was the calendar page turning to December, that eviscerated all of the Nets’ solid 11-4 early work and doomed Johnson’s fate in the first place.

You might also remember that the foot injury to center Brook Lopez, which forced him out of seven games, proved to be the igniter of that slide.

Which is why I am more interested in the post-game medical reports than the box score from last night’s game.

Already without swingman Jerry Stackhouse (sore hamstring) and power forwards Kris Humphries (tweaked prior ankle injury) and Mirza Teletovic (flu), the Nets kept trainer Tim Walsh busy throughout the game.

It started when the aptly-nicknamed Gerald “Crash” Wallace was sent flying parallel to the floor by Phoenix’ beefy guard P.J. Tucker on a dash to the rim about six minutes into the game. Wallace bruised his ribs (x-rays were negative) so bad that he had to be removed for the remainder of the game.

Wallace’s value to the Nets cannot be measured in stats—Carlesimo pretty much excused the Nets’ horrid performance in the Nets’ rout at San Antonio by pointing to Wallace’s knee injury—he contributes energy on both ends, often guarding the opposing team’s premier scorer.

Star point guard Deron Williams then took a shot in the leg in the third quarter, though he gutted it out before exiting with the Nets comfortably ahead with three minutes left to play.

Williams appeared to be finally recovering from the various early-season maladies that had plagued his shooting, looking as confident in recent games as he has ever been in a Nets uniform. However, there was a gimp to Williams’ gait following the injury, causing him to play in a far more passive manner.

Finally, in the waning moments, it appeared that backup center Andray Blatche jammed his hand going for a loose ball, though he also stayed on the court and the injury was not discussed in the post-game media interviews.

A hand injury could derail Blatche’s role as an offensive spark off the bench, someone who has diverse skills to either knock down mid-range jumpers or take his man to the hoop off the dribble.

So you’ll have to excuse my lack of enthusiasm over this latest momentum shift in Brooklyn. I’ve already seen it and watched it unravel once before. Before anyone anoints Carlesimo as Brooklyn’s resident wizard, let’s wait until we see if anything has changed from the last time the dreaded injury bug collided with an increased strength of schedule.

To be fair, Carlesimo deserves some credit for the Nets’ revival. At least he has gotten his Nets over their fear of the third quarter.

And, in a short period, Carlesimo has improved the confidence of players previously entrenched deep on the bench, like MarShon Brooks and Teletovic, and has been rewarded with their best efforts of the season. That faith could create the quality depth the Nets will need to overcome any loss in manpower.

Still, this is a players’ League. If any of the above incidents from last night result in lengthy absences or drastically-reduced effectiveness from such key contributors in these tougher games, not even a reincarnated Red Auerbach would be able to navigate the Nets to their ultimate destination.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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