By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s hard to believe that less than two years ago, the Nets and the Raptors engaged in an epic seven-game playoff series. Or that the previous 15 meetings (regular and postseason) between the two Atlantic Division rivals resulted in a cumulative tie score of 1504-1504.
As evidenced by Wednesday’s 91-74 Raptors victory at Barclays Center, the gap between the teams has widened quite a bit this season.
While Toronto is again in contention for a top-four postseason seed in the Eastern Conference, the 10-25 Nets are in absolute freefall.
“We’ve had the core together for about four years now,” Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry said. “We’re going in a direction where we know what we want to do and (the Nets are) in a direction where they’re just trying to figure it out right now.”
Brooklyn lost its eighth consecutive home game and its second following the injury to starting point guard Jarrett Jack, who crumpled to the floor while driving to the hoop in Boston on Saturday. Jack tore the ACL in his right knee and is out for the season.
Known mostly as a reserve throughout his 10 prior seasons, Jack had been handed the reins after Brooklyn general manager Billy King engineered a buyout of the remaining two years of Deron Williams’ untradeable contract this past offseason. While Jack’s penchant for looking for his own shot to the detriment of team efficiency wasn’t ideal for the position, he was averaging 12.8 points and 7.4 assists (sixth-best in the league) per game before the injury.
In Jack’s stead, neither Shane Larkin nor Donald Sloan have staked any claim to the lead role. Over the two games, including Monday’s 103-94 loss to the Celtics, the duo combined for 20 points on 9-for-23 (39 percent) shooting from the floor. That included just a combined 2-for-9 effort from 3-point range, with 13 assists and nine turnovers.
On the other end, the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas and the Raptors’ Lowry dominated when their clubs needed them to, using their superior quickness and shotmaking ability to create opportunities for themselves and for their teammates.
After the loss to the Raptors, Nets coach Lionel Hollins attempted to deflect the obvious disadvantages his club will be dealing with virtually every night going forward at the point guard position.
“I’ll let you determine whether (the point guards) are underachieving or not,” Hollins said. “It’s a group thing. We have to play better as a team offensively and defensively. We have to rebound better and we’ve got to turn the ball over less. If you look at the turnovers, it wasn’t really the point guards who turned the ball over.”
However, Hollins then explained some of the reasons behind his club’s offensive stagnation against Toronto.
“We had some decent ball movement at times, but for the most part the other team took away the ball movement,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to put the ball on the floor and penetrate and go by people to create help to keep the ball movement up, and their quickness didn’t allow that.”
That’s typically the point guard’s duty.
Larkin excelled at times earlier in the season as a spark coming off the bench. Prior to the New Year, the third-year pro who signed with Brooklyn as a mini mid-level free agent last summer was shooting 46.3 percent from the floor and 48.6 percent from 3-point land to go along with a respectable 2.63 assist-to-turnover ratio.
All of those figures were superior to those produced by Jack, albeit in an average of 13.3 minutes fewer per game. The other difference — and it’s a major one — is that Larkin had the benefit of mostly facing opposing teams’ backups.
Sloan appeared in only 12 of Brooklyn’s first 32 games before Jack’s injury. The 27-year-old started 21 games for the injury-riddled Indiana Pacers last season, but then again you should also know that they weren’t very good.
Sloan is an abysmal perimeter shooter and he doesn’t possess the blow-by ability to make defenders pay for playing off him. He had a horrendous game against Toronto, getting caught in the air on multiple occasions, leading to live-ball turnovers.
Fortunately for Sloan, who is the only Net whose contract is not fully guaranteed, Brooklyn needs his healthy body.
In order for the Nets to sign someone off the street, they’d have to create a roster spot because they are at the 15-player maximum. Sloan would be a logical cut, if not for the fact that the Nets would still be looking at a point guard shortage on their depth chart.
Another factor is the organization’s desire to remain under the luxury tax threshold. So though the Nets applied for the disabled player exception, which would allow them to add a little over $3 million in payroll through a free agent signing or a trade for a player in the final year of his contract, they only have about $1.4 million before they breach the tax threshold, according to The Brooklyn Game.
Besides, as King said when he met with the media on Monday, “there’s not a lot of options out there where you say that’s going to move the needle.”
That means don’t hold your breath for Tony Wroten, the oft-injured Road Runner who was released by the Sixers in December. Or anyone else for that matter, at least until the trade deadline.
I don’t disagree with King that Larkin deserves a shot to see what he can do, even if it means the Nets taking a good number of lumps over the next month. He’s only 23 and he at least hustles.
While they’re at it, whatever happened to Markel Brown? For some unknown reason, the athletic sophomore guard remains embedded deep in Hollins’ “Chateau Bow-Wow” (as hockey executive John Davidson calls the doghouse). I’d rather see Brown get minutes over Sloan as the backup point guard, if only for his improved on-ball defense.
This season is a lost cause anyway. Sure, it will be embarrassing when Boston selects a top-five player in the 2016 draft, thanks to the 2013 blockbuster deal for the long-gone Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, but that shouldn’t change the mission, which is to find out which of the young guys (Larkin, Brown, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Sergey Karasev, Willie Reed and Chris McCullough) can be developed into supporting rotation players when the franchise turns around.
You know, eventually.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1