By Steve Lichtenstein
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17 days. Eight games. All on the road.
Monday night starts the defining portion of the Nets’ schedule.
The Nets said goodbye to the not-so-friendly confines of Barclays Center on Sunday night after a gruesome defensive performance in the fourth quarter allowed Atlanta to pull away, 105-93. The Nets again failed to capitalize on an opportunity to tie the rival Knicks atop the Atlantic Division.
With only six home games remaining, the Nets are now a mediocre 22-14 in their new Brooklyn edifice.
It doesn’t give me hope that they’ll play significantly better on this road swing.
Forget about the dream of overtaking the wounded Knicks — I’d be happy if the Nets can return from the trip in their current fourth-place standing in the Eastern Conference, a slot that is given home-court advantage in the first playoff round.
However, I have reason to fear that this inconsistent club could just as easily fall to as low as the seventh seed in the jumbled East, which would likely mean relegation to NBA TV-land if they would happen to meet unmarketable and unwatchable Indiana in a first-round matchup.
It’s not because the Nets will be facing a gauntlet of elite opponents in the next two weeks. Only three of the eight games will be against teams over .500. The trip is bookended by a pair of clubs playing for ping pong balls — beginning with the fading Pistons, losers of eight straight — on Monday night.
I just have no idea who these Nets are. This is one of four NBA teams to have departed Oklahoma City with a win. The Nets have also failed to show up at their scheduled destination on numerous occasions, the most recent example being only a week ago in Philadelphia.
We’re about to find out whether this was all a big tease.
If the Nets can basically tread water on this upcoming trip, they will be positioned well for the stretch run. If they endure something like a 2-6 mark? Then it won’t be long before I start focusing on hockey.
Almost as important as the final box scores will be the medical reports. Just ask the Knicks, who might be more accepting of their current four-game road losing streak if they could guarantee the complete and immediate recoveries from knee injuries to their indispensable stars Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire.
This run will be onerous on some Nets who are just getting over various aches and pains. Deron Williams’ ankles and Joe Johnson’s heel appear to be close to 100 percent, but they play big minutes every night. Besides, all it takes is one unlucky Kobe Bryant-type landing to figuratively end the Nets’ season.
To a lesser degree, I’m worried about Gerald Wallace, who is prone to injury from his many crash landings — if only for the additional minutes that I’d have to put up with watching Keith Bogans. When Bogans almost singlehandedly destroyed the Nets’ momentum in the fourth quarter last night, my interjection was reminiscent of the one once used by Seinfeld when confounded by Newman — “Bogans!”
Which brings me to interim coach P.J. Carlesimo’s rotation, which has become his own Odyssey.
After 66 games, 38 in the head chair, you would think that Carlesimo would have a good handle on what his boys can and cannot do, and who he wants on the floor when games are on the line.
Only the Big Three of Williams, Johnson and center Brook Lopez have been constants. Well, if you don’t count those three games following the All-Star break when Lopez was benched in the fourth quarter in favor of backup Andray Blatche.
As for the forwards, your guess is as good as mine. Carlesimo hasn’t figured it out either.
Last night, Carlesimo went with three guards, adding point guard C.J. Watson to the Williams/Johnson duo after the Bogans disaster. It didn’t make an impact.
In the prior game, Carlesimo paired Blatche with Lopez for a Twin Towers look for significant minutes in the second half, but he obviously didn’t like that matchup versus the Hawks.
For three quarters, Carlesimo seemed vindicated, as power forward Reggie Evans played like a man possessed, accumulating 21 rebounds and a season-high 14 points while making Josh Smith work hard to earn his points.
That evidently earned Evans a seven-minute hiatus to start the fourth quarter. The Hawks appeared grateful, taking advantage of the Nets’ abysmal help defense to convert 14 of their first 17 shots in the decisive frame.
Mirza Teletovic, who was deserving of his recently expanded role (especially when compared to what Kris Humphries was bringing), is flunking his audition. He needed to shoot lights out. Instead, he has knocked down only 28 percent of his attempts in the last six games.
Carlesimo seems equally perplexed about what to do with Wallace, the Nets’ energy infuser. He somehow only played only two fourth-quarter minutes last night despite the Nets’ defensive woes.
Of course, it would be helpful if Wallace could make at least half his layups, and maybe a three-pointer once in a while. Wallace’s March numbers have been dreadful, with a 28 percent field-goal efficiency.
Still, with all those fourth-quarter loose balls snared by the Hawks, all those uncontested Atlanta rim-rattlers, I’ve got to believe that Wallace would have had some say in how those game-changing plays went down had he been in there for more than two minutes.
As the Nets take to the road, Carlesimo is going to need to make sure he has players with that type of intensity on the floor or else the Nets could be run out of any of these buildings.
It’s not going to be easy, especially on the defensive end. The travel and the quick turnarounds will tire their legs. Will they make the effort to not cheat on the pick-and-rolls by going under screens or switching to difficult matchups? Will they keep pace with quicker opponents’ transition games? And will they run out to contest three-point shooters?
The answers to all these questions will be the primary determinants as to how the Nets will fare in these next eight games.
And, in turn, they will likely be the seminal factors as to whether the Nets can compete in the Eastern Conference playoffs or merely serve as first-round fodder.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
What do you think the Nets’ record will be on their eight-game trip? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…