By Steve Lichtenstein
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As the NBA season heads into the home stretch, I see a path for coach Lionel Hollins to follow that will ensure that his Nets secure one of the eight playoff slots among the dregs at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

All Hollins has to do over Brooklyn’s next six games — starting Monday night at home versus Portland — is figure out a way to safely play Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson 48 minutes per game.

If only.

That quartet, plus rookie starting shooting guard Markel Brown, has been outscoring its opposition by 16.2 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, fifth-best in the league for lineups that have played over 150 minutes in that period, per NBA.com.  Only twice during the Nets’ 10-2 spurt prior to Saturday night’s 131-99 blowout loss in Atlanta has Brooklyn trailed after one quarter, on average leading by about five points.

Of course, players are not robots.  They need some rest.

Or God forbid the Nets’ starters don’t have it, like when they faced the scorching Hawks on Saturday for Brooklyn’s fourth game in five nights.  The night prior, Hollins ran Lopez and Williams the entire second half — Young and Johnson each received a four-and-a-half minute break — to secure a crucial 114-109 home victory over Toronto.

The consequence was that Atlanta faced little resistance on Saturday, at one point connecting on 19 of 21 shots during a second-quarter run that allowed coach Mike Budenholzer to keep all his regulars under 27 minutes while sending a dual-message to the Nets:  We have no problem with either knocking you into the lottery (where the Hawks would get the Nets’ pick in a swap originating from the 2012 trade that sent Johnson to Brooklyn) or — if you do make it to the postseason — toying with you should we meet in the first round.

On a night when Hollins desperately needed to get something out of his bench — which should have been fairly rested relative to the starting unit — it again got badly outplayed.

That has to change, or else the seventh-place Nets’ tenuous lead (a half-game over Boston, a game-and-a-half over Indiana and Miami and two games over Charlotte) could dissipate overnight.

Hollins was praised for bypassing the reserves in the second half on Friday against the Raptors.  He simply grew tired of the recurring plot — the Nets’ starting five would charge out to a nice early lead, but then the bench would give it all back by the middle of the second quarter.  Repeat in the second half.  Fortunately, the Nets have been very good in tight contests, winning six of their eight games decided by five points or fewer (or went to overtime) since the break.

But Hollins knows the game plan he used against the Raptors is not sustainable.  Not with these final six games being contested over a 10-day span.  Five of the six opponents will be playoff-bound, though the Nets received a break when Portland announced that LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Chris Kaman stayed home.

Hollins has to find a way to balance the team so it is not susceptible to these overwhelming runs.  Earlier in the season, he had Lopez and Williams coming off the bench, but that wouldn’t make sense now with Jarrett Jack and Mason Plumlee both slumping.

Here’s a few tweaks the Nets should be considering:

Stagger Starters’ Rest Periods Better

Too often Hollins has sent four or even five-man reserve units to the floor, the latter of which routinely got pummeled.  This is the time in the season where coaches usually shorten the rotation, except that this is the one area where Hollins apparently doesn’t want to rankle feathers.

With Alan Anderson sidelined for at least Monday’s game with a sprained ankle, that’s one less option for Hollins.  However, Bojan Bogdanovich’s defense on the wing has been dreadful recently.  If Anderson returns with the same efficiency he’s displayed since the All-Star break (47.7 percent shooting from the floor, 39.1 percent on threes), I don’t care how well Bogdanovich is scoring. He can’t see time if he’s playing like a human fire hydrant.

Up front, Hollins has struggled all season with finding a backup power forward.  Earl Clark was the latest to get a 10-day audition.  There were a few moments that made you wonder why a player so athletic and energetic has had so much trouble finding a permanent home — and many others which provided a perfect explanation for that puzzle.  The Nets signed Clark to a multi-year contract on Monday, but his play has not justified regular rotation minutes going forward.

Two other whiffs at the four have been Plumlee (when sharing the court with Lopez) and Johnson, who doesn’t have the requisite mentality to responsibly patrol the paint on defense and forces the Nets to become a more perimeter-oriented attack on the other end.  As noted ad nauseam on these pages, Hollins — for some reason — loves to go small despite the one-sided results.

Against certain teams (Washington, Chicago, possibly Portland depending on its adjusted rotation) however, the Plumlee/Lopez combination might actually work.  Those clubs don’t revolve around “stretch-fours” that test the comparatively immobile Lopez/Plumlee duo out on the perimeter.  Having an extra big body lurking around the paint is always helpful against any team, which is why I would also consider giving rookie Cory Jefferson more of an opportunity in this role if all else fails.

The bottom line is that Hollins has to do some serious planning for these upcoming games.  He needs to have at least two of the Lopez/Williams/Young/Johnson foursome on the floor at all times.  It won’t happen if Hollins doesn’t shorten the rotation and stagger the starters’ breaks.

Rein In Jarrett Jack

Hollins has worked wonders this season developing Lopez from a one-trick (scoring) pony into a more (though not fully) well-rounded player through constant badgering.  It’s time for Hollins to read Jack the riot act.

Jack still thinks of himself as this generation’s Vinnie Johnson, the microwave scorer with a green light on every possession.  If Jack makes one mid-range jump shot, he assumes he’s on a heat check.

It’s killing Brooklyn.

Jack’s net rating of minus-8.3 points per 100 possessions is Knicks-worthy — it’s the third-worst rating among all NBA point guards who have played over 50 games.  Before running up some stats during garbage time in Atlanta, Jack was 17-of-46 (37 percent) from the field during the Nets’ six-game winning streak.

He shouldn’t be this bad.

Hollins needs to be explicit in his instructions to the nine-year veteran.  No more contested pull-ups early in the shot clock.  Ball protection supersedes probing the paint in search of an angle to get off a shot.  Passing is not just for the dinner table: His number one priority on pick-and-rolls is to find where the open man is based on processing the defense’s expected help rotations.

I love Jack’s aggressiveness getting after balls and cojones in big moments where experience often matters.  He just shouldn’t think of himself as the hero on every possession.

Have Mason Plumlee Play Defense More Like Brook Lopez

I know, I had to read that subtitle twice also.  Lopez’s laissez-faire approach to defense has frustrated fans and every one of his seven different head coaches in his seven seasons as a member of the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets.

However, while still far from turning into a Marc Gasol clone, Lopez has been better during the Nets’ surge post-trade deadline.  He’s still prone to over-helping — leaving opponents salivating at excessive second-chance opportunities — and Boston recently twisted him into knots, subjecting him to an endless series of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops.  But it’s been pleasing to now see a more impactful Lopez around the rim to match his beastly performances on offense.

The problem with Plumlee is that, because he is by any measure more athletic than Lopez, he is allowed more freedom to roam on defense.  The sophomore will blitz out high on pick-and-rolls or leave his man to challenge potential shooters on the assumption that he can recover.

Too often he doesn’t.

Per NBA.com, the Nets as a team average about 105 points allowed per 100 possessions, which is lousy enough to rank in the bottom third of the league.  When Plumlee is on the floor, that defensive rating jumps to over 108 points per 100 possessions.  During the Nets’ 10-2 run, they allowed 115 points per 100 possessions with Plumlee on the court versus 103 points with Lopez.

Before he was dealt to Minnesota for Young in a deal that may have saved this Nets’ season, Kevin Garnett’s biggest contribution was his mentorship of certain young players, especially Plumlee.  Garnett encouraged Plumlee to play like him — be active.

That works if you have Garnett’s basketball IQ and know how to position yourself so you don’t leave your teammates hanging.  With Plumlee, all his activity looks like hyperactivity.  He’s all over the place, which makes him unable to protect the rim or box out on rebounds.

How about getting Plumlee to play more conservatively, dropping down into the paint on more pick-and-rolls so his teammates don’t have to leave their men unattended at the three-point line for so many gimmes?

In other words, have him play more like Lopez.

The Nets have come back from the abyss to now own their postseason destiny.  They have three home games this week, two of which are winnable.  It’ll take more than four guys at their best to win them.  It’s up to Hollins to figure out the who and how.

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

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