By Steve Lichtenstein
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For the Brooklyn Nets, this next stretch of games is their Rush Week.

The upcoming slate, which includes tonight’s home game versus Atlantic Division-leading Toronto followed by road games at Miami and Washington before Phoenix visits next Monday, should show whether the Nets belong in the fraternity of teams that can legitimately compete in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

There’s not much time left after that for the Nets to make a push into the top four in the East, which guarantees home-court advantage in the first round.  After Sunday’s 104-89 home victory over Sacramento, sixth-place Brooklyn stands three games behind Chicago for fourth while Toronto has pulled four games ahead in the third slot.

The Nets’ turnaround from a hellish 10-21 record on New Year’s Eve to over .500 has come mostly on the backs of the weak, tired and injury-riddled.  Oh, there have been a few statement games along the way, like last week’s breakthrough over the pesky Bulls.

But if the Nets want to prove that they are truly worthy, they are going to have to do more than just show up these next eight days.  That means no more 44-point losses like the debacle in Portland two weeks ago.

However, like hazed pledges, the Nets might have to head into tonight with their figurative hands tied behind their backs.

With starting center Kevin Garnett already sidelined Sunday for the fifth straight game due to back spasms, the Nets lost power forward Paul Pierce in the second minute Sunday when his recurring sore shoulder got banged in the post by Sacramento’s Jason Thompson.

Reserve Andrei Kirilenko filled the vacuum nicely, but then he tweaked his ankle and had to exit the game early in the third quarter.

All three players are listed as “day-to-day” for tonight.  The Nets, whose rebounding woes are approaching comical levels, can ill afford to lose more big men.

The Kings were the latest team to post jaw-dropping numbers on the boards, outrebounding Brooklyn by a nearly 2-to-1 margin (53-27), despite being blown out on the scoreboard.

DaMarcus Cousins made mincemeat out of the Nets’ front line on Sunday with 28 points and 20 rebounds.  Thirty-five-year old Jason Collins, who is on his second 10-day contract with Brooklyn to be their fourth-string center, was the only Nets big to have any success containing Cousins.  Rookie Mason Plumlee, who has been starting in Garnett’s place, was again limited by foul trouble.  And Andray Blatche’s defense, well—let’s just say that his mind is often on his next shot.

The Nets have lately been able to compensate for their weakness inside by significantly increasing their forced turnover rate.  Sacramento was the Nets’ fourth straight opponent to cough up the ball over 20 times.

The next quartet of teams, however, might not be so generous with the ball.  In this group, only the Wizards are out of the top ten in the league in points per 100 possessions.

That also means that extra possessions given up by the Nets to these opponents through offensive rebounds are likely to be more damaging than, say, when the Nets were outrebounded by the Bucks.

In a bit of irony, the Nets traded their most proficient rebounder—Reggie Evans—to the Kings before the deadline.  Of course, Evans’ complete lack of any offensive aptitude outweighed all the toughness he brought to the interior, which is why no one in Brooklyn (other than Garnett) was crying over his departure.

In fact, Nets fans were amazed that the Evans-Jason Terry deadweight proffer brought back gunslinger Marcus Thornton in return.

As Sunday was the odd game, Thornton went wild in the second half against his old club, scoring 27 points in total in 28 minutes off the bench.  In his last five games, Thornton has topped 20 points in three of them, during which he shot 66 percent from the floor.

In the other two games?  Seven combined points on 12.5 percent shooting.

And that right there kind of describes this Nets season in a nutshell.  At their best, they have the weaponry to beat any team in the league on a given night.  At the same time, they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent–like Friday night in Boston, the latest in a long line of inexcusable defeats to tanking teams.

That kind of effort won’t cut it in any of these next four games.

The “process,” as coach Jason Kidd likes to call it, has brought the Nets to this crucial juncture.  While failure to embrace this challenge won’t have them blackballed from the postseason in the putrid East, a strong performance this week would send a message that the Nets belong with more elite company.

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

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