By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets’ 101-93 victory in Boston last night enabled Brooklyn to inch forward toward clinching home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. At 46-32, many in the media are calling them a dangerous team.
Now if they can only get there en masse.
While the win extended the Nets’ lead over Chicago for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference to three games with four to play, it came with another casualty.
Small forward Gerald Wallace, Brooklyn’s best wing defender, tripped in the second quarter and needed to be helped into the locker room due to a left heel contusion. Wallace did not return and exited the arena in a walking boot.
The Nets were already shorthanded at the position as reserve Keith Bogans missed a second straight game with a sore back. (Though I would argue that this was a clear case of addition by subtraction for the Nets, especially since Jerry Stackhouse had a decent game in emergency duty. Bogans has missed 17 of his last 18 field goal attempts. Please, no need to rush back.)
Shooting guard Joe Johnson has also been hobbled of late, with a sore left heel causing him to miss the final five games on the Nets’ recent road trip. Last night was Johnson’s best performance since his return as he contributed 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting from the floor (4-for-6 from three-point land). However, there’s still the potential that this type of injury can be a recurring issue for the Nets.
On one hand, the Nets have it no worse than many of the other Eastern Conference playoff principals. I’ll never feel bad for the Celtics, but I also know that they’ve had more than their fair share of bad luck this season, losing key components Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger for the year and having to keep Kevin Garnett, their spiritual leader, on a minutes limit after he missed eight games.
Chicago, the Nets’ likely first-round opponent (though Atlanta is nipping at the Bulls’ heels thanks to inconceivable losses to Detroit and Toronto), is in dire straits having to work around the absences of big men Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and All Star forward Luol Deng. Not to mention 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, whose return from last year’s ACL tear remains a mystery.
The Knicks have a laundry list of players in and out of the lineup and the Pacers have been without All Star forward Danny Granger all season.
But the NBA is a war of attrition. The season is about 10 games too long, with ridiculous density, causing the bodies to pile up on the sideline. Those that get to the postseason in reasonable physical condition have a distinct advantage, which would be as important for the Nets as an extra game at the Barclays Center.
That’s why you see teams like San Antonio schedule nights off during the season for their aging stars and Miami coasting to the finish line with their main attractions healing on the beach.
With their magic number for clinching the fourth seed at two and needing a miracle to overtake the Pacers for third (the Nets are three games back, but the Pacers hold the tiebreaker as a division winner), the Nets now have to make their health the priority.
Though I doubt interim coach P.J. Carlesimo is on the same page, there’s really no need for Brooklyn to dress its core for Friday’s rumble in Indiana. Carlesimo’s postgame comments last night indicated he sees Friday as some kind of statement game.
If a significant Net goes down, my statement will be: “Fire P.J!”
It’s not worth the risk. The Nets’ last three games are all against lottery-bound clubs who combined have beaten them once in nine tries this season. Plus Chicago has a much more difficult slate, with the hot Knicks tonight and then a grudge match in Miami on Sunday. Carlesimo can always watch the scoreboard before deciding on his lineup for Sunday in Toronto.
The playoffs start in about 10 days. At this point, Carlesimo’s first order of business should be to do no harm. Instead, use the time to mend all the aches and pains.
Like the nagging soreness in power forward Reggie Evans’ shoulder. Even though I’ve been going under the assumption that Evans can regenerate his body like the Terminator, he only plays like he’s indestructible. Evans reached double figures in rebounds (14) for the 15th consecutive game last night, though his string at 20-plus rebounds was halted at two.
Hey, how about more plasma treatments for Deron Williams? This one’s facetious, but that first set, around the All-Star break, has worked wonders for the point guard, who struggled through much of the first half with ankle issues. Imagine what a double dose could do?
Williams continued his splendid stretch with a 29-point outing last night, toying with Boston’s anointed defensive wizard Avery Bradley (who couldn’t stop Williams without fouling. Bradley was limited to 12 immaterial minutes).
Wallace likely needs full-body treatment, as the aptly nicknamed “Crash” has left pieces of himself scattered across NBA courts around the country.
Just as important, he also could use a crash (no pun intended) course in shooting mechanics, as his confidence has shrunk so low that an uncontested first-quarter dunk last night was cause for jubilation. Wallace hadn’t scored in three games and had been playing offense with the fear that he might be called upon to produce with the ball in his hands.
Here’s the larger point: The adage that time heals all wounds only works if time is proffered. Let the other contenders (like the Knicks—see Martin, Kenyon) take the unnecessary risks.
P.J.: Think about giving Williams, Johnson, Evans, Wallace and Brook Lopez Friday off.
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Should Carlesimo give his stars the night off? Nets fans, sound off in the comments!