By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s the final week of the regular season and the Nets, locked and loaded on the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference (having blown their pinhole of an opportunity to hurdle the Pacers by falling in Toronto on Sunday) can now turn their attention to preparing for their first playoff appearance in five years.
As expected, interim coach P.J. Carlesimo gave his core the night off in Monday night’s 106-101 victory over Washington at a raucous Barclays Center.
Though there’s one more meaningless game to play (at home versus Detroit on Wednesday), there are still some unresolved issues that will influence how far Carlesimo’s club will go.
1. The Nets’ first-round opponent
The Bulls’ obliteration of Orlando last night indicated that they are not satisfied with sixth place after four losses in five games sent them plummeting to a full game behind the fifth-place Hawks.
The Bulls are getting healthy—they welcomed back center Joakim Noah last night after a lengthy absence due to a foot injury. Noah’s presence inside changes the complexion of any series, especially against a team like Brooklyn, a walk-it-up halfcourt-oriented offense that must work inside-out to score.
Chicago needs Atlanta to gag on one of its two remaining contests (home tomorrow versus the dangerous Raptors and at the Knicks on Wednesday) and then conquer the Wizards on Wednesday to secure the fifth seed via the tiebreaker.
I’ve been wondering whether the Bulls (or Hawks) even think it’s worth it—even if they believe Brooklyn’s inexperience creates a more favorable first-round matchup than the Pacers, the series winner then has to follow it up with the unenviable task of taking four games from the red-hot Heat.
The Bulls had the Knicks’ figured out in their regular season meetings and, even though the Eastern Conference title will eventually run through Miami, the extra series in between may be enough time for injured superstar point guard Derrick Rose to work his way back onto the floor.
Or maybe I’m just praying that the Hawks will hold on because I’m more scared of the prospect of the Nets facing Rose, Noah and coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes.
2. The Nets’ health
Though small forward Gerald Wallace was active for last night’s game after missing the prior two with a lower leg contusion, there’s still some concern over shooting guard Joe Johnson’s heel. Johnson missed the final five games of the Nets’ recent 8-game road trip and then struggled until a pair of strong performances in wins over Boston and Indiana last week.
But Johnson had a rough game on Sunday night, shooting 4-of-16 from the floor and looking like his lift on his jumper was not at full blast. No one reported that Johnson had any sort of relapse (and the injury report from last night doesn’t count, as it also included fellow starters Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Reggie Evans—all of whom would have played if the game meant something) but the Nets need Johnson at something close to 100 percent in order to advance. He’s one of the few Nets who opponents have to guard at the three-point line and he’s been near-perfect in the closing minutes of tight games.
Also relevant, if only because Carlesimo is illogically in love with him, is the condition of reserve swingman Keith Bogans’ back.
It hasn’t seemed to matter that Bogans is statistically one of the worst players in the League at his position, or that he is in the midst of a 2-for-28 slump over his last seven games, I know Carlesimo is going to look at some matchup and conclude that Bogans is his man.
Bogans will work hard on defense (though he’s not a good fit to guard the Bulls’ physical Luol Deng) and hang out in the corners in case anyone needs him to shoot a three-pointer. It would be helpful if his back allowed him to make a few more than he’s been converting.
Which brings me to…
3. Gerald Wallace’s mental health
A surefire way to keep Bogans nailed to the bench would be if Wallace steps up and plays with more confidence. Wallace was on the court in body last night, but not really in full spirit. He looked deathly afraid to shoot, scoring on one slashing drive in his three field goal attempts. On one three-point airball, YES analyst Greg Anthony suggested that it was Wallace’s intention to put it short so teammate C.J. Watson could lay in the miss. Neither cohort Ian Eagle nor the statisticians bought it.
Wallace does so many things for the Nets that make him valuable—he defends the opponent’s top wing scorer, he leads the team in steals, he rebounds, and he can be counted on to hustle after loose balls–but with the offensively-limited Evans starting at power forward, the Nets are going to need contributions from Wallace to prevent opposing defenses from loading up on the Big Three of Williams, Johnson and Lopez.
It would be helpful if Carlesimo could design the Nets’ offensive spacing so that Wallace isn’t always hanging out behind the three-point line. As I’ve often said, he’s never going to be like Steve Novak, someone with a plus-40 percent three-point percentage. Even a few feet inside would be nice so Wallace wouldn’t have to slash as far to the rim, which has always been his preferred game.
Of course, Wallace’s efficiency inside the paint hasn’t been so wonderful, either. The leg injury and other ailments from a full season of crashing to the floor have probably been factors in his low scoring output. Or he could just be getting old.
The Nets re-signed Wallace over the summer to a four-year, $40 million contract to play in these hard-fought battles. They don’t have anyone else at this position to match his particular skills. They have less than a week to get him right.
4. P.J. Carlesimo’s rotation
Forget it, folks. You’re not going to see any more of Toko Shengelia after Wednesday.
Shengelia enlivened the crowd with his high-energy and high-flying play last night, putting up a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. Carlesimo may not have his rotation set in stone, but his issue is who to cut, not add.
At varying points this season, Carlesimo has tried to keep as many as 12 players happy with regular minutes. It’s been a struggle and one of the underlying causes of the Nets’ inconsistency.
In the playoffs, I’m hoping Carlesimo sees the light and dials it back to no more than eight.
Especially if Chicago is the first-round opponent, the Nets need to pair Lopez and backup center Andray Blatche more often. It’s common for coaches in the playoffs to use a three-man rotation among the two big-man positions. Power forward Kris Humphries has not turned in a solid enough body of work to warrant time off the bench.
Neither has guard MarShon Brooks, for that matter. The Nets would be better off using Watson as part of a three-guard rotation with Williams and Johnson, with Williams taking some turns off the ball to run off screens for catch-and-shoots.
Watson has been the Nets’ most efficient three-point shooter down the stretch, beating even the resurrected Williams. He’s also a significantly better caretaker of the ball, which has been a season-long bugaboo for the turnover-prone Nets, than Brooks.
Finally, I’d prefer the ageless wonder Jerry Stackhouse over Bogans to sub in for Wallace, but I realize that’s unlikely if Bogans is healthy. Stackhouse may give up some on defense, but he’s still got it when it comes to creating his own shot and overall court sense, unlike Minus Man Bogans.
A death knell would be if we see a repeat of what occurred the last time Chicago invaded Brooklyn. The Nets started the fourth quarter with five reserves to face the Bulls’ starters, which didn’t work out very well. No one does that and, to be fair, that’s the last time I saw Carlesimo use that lineup (he’s since always had either Williams or Johnson on the floor, not including garbage time).
The time for experimenting is over. Carlesimo has to play his best guys for as long as they can reasonably go.
The playoffs are just at the end of this road. We’ll have a clearer view on Wednesday night.
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