By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets played exactly one game last season with a barren injury report.
Forget Brooklyn’s 3-1 preseason record. The only victory that mattered was their remarkable good health heading into Wednesday’s opener in Indiana.
This being the Nets, they couldn’t make it through one regular season game before succumbing again to the killer injury bug.
Point guard Jeremy Lin ruptured the patella tendon in his right knee after an awkward landing under the basket in the fourth quarter of a ghastly 140-131 defeat. The Nets reported Friday that while Lin’s surgery was successful, he will be out for the remainder of the season.
This is nothing new to Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, as Lin missed 46 of Brooklyn’s 82 games last season, mostly due to hamstring issues.
The Nets, who were devoid of competent playmakers behind Lin at the time, were miserable in his absence, going 7-39 in those 46 contests and 9-45 in any game in which he played 20 or fewer minutes.
Atkinson said that one of the first things Lin told him after coming to terms with this latest setback was that the Nets are “better equipped” to deal with this demoralizing event than last season.
What he meant was that the Nets now have D’Angelo Russell.
Yes, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks replaced a good amount of deadwood with quality (albeit expensive) personnel such as wings DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe, but the trade for the 21-year-old guard who was drafted second overall in 2015 was Marks’ most significant move of the summer.
Russell was sent to Brooklyn from the Lakers, along with center Timofey Mozgov, for star center Brook Lopez plus a late first-round draft pick that was used on promising forward Kyle Kuzma.
Marks acquiesced to this trade because he was betting that Russell would develop into a reliable go-to player down the stretch of tight games.
Russell was exactly that in the Nets’ two wins over the weekend. He took over in crunch time during both the 126-121 victory over Orlando on Friday and their 116-104 defeat of Atlanta on Sunday. Russell combined to convert 6 of his 9 field goal attempts in the last five minutes of the two games.
Overall, Russell is averaging 21 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the floor (including 35.7 percent from 3-point range) in just 28.3 minutes per game.
Of course, there are disclaimers.
Mainly, thank you, NBA schedule makers. To get used to playing without Lin, Brooklyn was given home games against two projected lottery teams. In addition, the Magic, who were already minus budding building block Aaron Gordon, lost starting point guard Elfrid Payton to a hamstring injury after halftime Friday. On Sunday, the Hawks provided the latest segment to the league’s “2017-18 Most Gruesome Injuries” video when Dennis Schroder stepped on Nets wing Caris LeVert’s foot with 3:37 remaining. The Hawks, who fully erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit a few minutes earlier, stumbled to the final buzzer without their starting point guard.
Which is why I’m not in any rush to proclaim the impact from Lin’s injury one way or another. Nets fans may be giddy that their team shrugged off the blow so quickly and now sports a winning record (2-1) for the first time in nearly three years, but there’s no question that Marks and Atkinson valued Lin’s leadership and work ethic — attributes they hoped would rub off on Russell — not just the numbers Lin posted on the court that have since been adequately replaced by the next men up (first Crabbe, and then LeVert, in the vacated slot among the starting five; Spencer Dinwiddie is in an expanded reserve role; and Joe Harris has been elevated to the rotation) .
The plan, after all, was to pair Russell with Lin, enabling both to share the traditional point guard responsibilities. In that respect, Russell still has a lot to learn before he can succeed as a solo artist. While he is averaging 7 assists per game, his 15.6 turnover ratio is the league’s fourth-worst among point guards who average more than 25 minutes per game. Though his shooting percentage is well above average, his shot selection can be, to put it mildly, questionable. Russell also has plenty of room to grow defensively, which is why Atkinson benched him for the final 24 seconds against Orlando to preserve a four-point lead.
In the previous two-plus minutes, however, Russell kept the Nets in front by making three shots in spectacular fashion.
Russell was born to play the role of closer. He seems to have a swagger that Deron Williams was expected to have during his Brooklyn tenure but that never surfaced. It’s the belief that he can carry a team across the finish line. More importantly, he has the talent to back it up, which is something the Nets have lacked since the end of Joe Johnson’s legendary run a few years ago.
Will that alone be enough to lift the Nets into a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference this season? Of course not. Every aspect of Brooklyn’s team defense is an abomination. Even after the Hawks shot a putrid 34 percent from the floor Sunday, the Nets rank 25th in defensive efficiency at 109.1 points allowed per 100 possessions.
And it should be emphasized that their opponents to date aren’t exactly as skilled as the Warriors. When the competition stiffens, the Nets will surely wilt. This week’s back-to-back at Orlando on Tuesday and versus Cleveland at home Wednesday will be better tests of where the Nets stand without Lin.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.