By Steve Lichtenstein
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I really thought Wednesday would be the night I could break out my John Candy impression from “Rookie of the Year” and shout, “The Nets have their longest winning streak of the year … two!”
Alas, typical Brooklyn carelessness with the ball doomed it to a 110-105 loss in Atlanta.
Wait a minute. Why in the world was I hopeful that the wretched Nets, at 11-52 on the season and a whopping 7 1/2 games behind the Lakers for the dishonor of the NBA’s worst record, had any shot whatsoever to beat the playoff-bound Hawks? And on the road, where their last win against a team from the Eastern Conference was way back on Jan. 2, 2016?
It’s because I have learned that one should never count out Jeremy Lin.
The Nets point guard, who missed 44 games this season due to multiple hamstring woes after signing a three-year, $36 million free agent contract last summer, has a way of making a believer out of the most pessimistic curmudgeons like me.
That Lin missed the potential game-tying desperation 3-pointer on Wednesday is of no consequence. The Nets had no business being in that position given that they were down seven points with 3:11 to play.
However, in the ensuing 30-second span, Lin hit a jumper in the lane and then created a steal that led to his assist on a transition hoop by Sean Kilpatrick. In the final minute, Lin executed a perfect pick-and-roll bounce pass to an open Brook Lopez for a dunk that cut the Hawks lead to 104-102. Then, after Kilpatrick’s costly turnover seemingly put the game out of Brooklyn’s reach, Lin nailed a corner 3-pointer with 13 seconds left to make it 106-105 and re-open the door.
Lin, who has been on a minutes restriction since returning after the All-Star break, finished with 16 points and eight assists in only 24 minutes. In these last seven games, all on the road, Lin has shot 15-for-29 from (51.7 percent) from behind the 3-point line.
In Brooklyn’s previous game, in Memphis on Monday, Lin knocked down all the clutch shots, scoring nine points in the final three minutes. It turned a tight contest into a 122-109 upset over the shocked Grizzlies.
Let’s get this straight– this is not Linsanity, the sequel. Unlike that magical seven-week ride in 2012 when Lin played for the Knicks (while getting tutored by current Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson), there’s nothing surreal going on here. Lin is not creeping under anyone’s radar this season at age 28. The league knows who he is — a very good player who has a way of making his teammates a whole lot better.
Take Kilpatrick, who has topped 20 points in each of his last three games by taking advantage of a reduced ballhandling load. Rookie Caris LeVert moved seamlessly into the starting lineup, where his length and athleticism have vastly improved the team’s wing defense without him feeling the pressure to facilitate on the offensive end. Similarly, stretch 4 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has taken a small step forward by picking his spots to drive to the hoop instead of being too aggressive and turnover-prone. Spencer Dinwiddie and rookie Isaiah Whitehead have looked more confident facing opponents’ reserve guards than they did when either was starting.
Even 33-year-old Randy Foye, who I still insist is so out of place in the starting five, has improved his efficiencies in recent games, knocking down more 3-pointers (52.6 percent since the break), while turning the ball over less (just two in his last 73 minutes on the court).
I’m not suggesting that the Nets would have contended for a postseason berth had Lin been healthy all season. They’d still lose a slew of games the way they lost on Wednesday, committing 23 turnovers, failing to contain opponents’ standard pick-and-roll plays (Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder shredded Brooklyn with 31 points), and surrendering second-chance points at crucial moments because they (mostly Lopez) don’t rebound well enough.
However, they certainly would have been more competitive.
This Nets season turned to shambles when Lin first went down on Nov. 2. For the last four months, it has looked like a complete waste, but it is now showing glimpses of progress.
Atkinson’s pace-and-space schemes have been boosted by having a professional starting point guard. While Brooklyn is still jacking up 3s from all angles (sixth-most per game this month), it is a respectable 10th in 3-point field goal percentage in March after ranking 26th at the All-Star break, despite taking the fourth-most attempts.
Unfortunately, I fear there is not much more time for this group to jell, as general manager Sean Marks might opt to repeat his strategy from last year when he shut down his top players as precautions against injuries. Given their histories, Lin and Lopez would no doubt be on the list of candidates to pack it in by the end of the month.
The Nets play the final game of their eight-game road trip on Friday at Dallas before coming home to face the Knicks on Sunday. I just want to see one winning streak before the season ends. It’s not too much to ask. Even the hapless 12-70 Nets of 2009-10 won two games in a row once.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1