By Steve Lichtenstein
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All throughout the Nets’ 109-102 loss to Boston before a heavily pro-Celtics crowd at Barclays Center on Tuesday, my prevailing thought was, “Well, it could have been worse.”
A lot worse.
The Celtics entered the game on fire, having won 12 in a row. The Nets were limping home from a five-game road trip at 5-8 and were down to their third-string point guard.
The Celtics could put the ball in the hands of All-Star Kyrie Irving down the stretch. The Nets? They had Spencer Dinwiddie, a nice story but hardly a player capable of going mano-a-mano with the NBA’s elite.
It wasn’t exactly a fair fight.
Boston toyed with their overmatched foe until the final four minutes when, after the Nets cut an earlier 11-point deficit to four points, Irving took over. His exquisite ballhandling had the Nets scrambling on the defensive end. When Irving wasn’t scoring his seven points over the next 3:30, he was opening up creases for his teammates to run to the rim.
Irving helped deliver the fatal blow when his steal initiated a fast break that culminated with an emphatic Jayson Tatum alley-oop dunk to put Boston ahead 104-96 with 55 seconds remaining.
Dinwiddie may have recorded eight fourth-quarter points, but he’s just not that type of player. He struggled to finish at the rim against Boston’s length and athleticism, shooting 4-of-14 overall from the floor. His only 3-pointer in six attempts was on a 30-foot heave with 33 seconds remaining.
Unfortunately, that’s who the Nets will have to go into battle with for the foreseeable future. Jeremy Lin was lost for the season when he ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee on opening night, and D’Angelo Russell was felled by a left knee contusion in the late stages of Saturday’s loss in Utah that closed the road trip on the sourest of notes.
Russell’s recovery timetable has been labeled “day-to-day.” That could mean a week or two months. The Nets aren’t saying.
When it comes to Nets point guards, you’re always thinking the worst. It’s almost like the position was cursed when Jason Kidd forced himself out of the organization (the first time) back in 2008 when the club was in New Jersey.
Devin Harris, Kidd’s replacement, had one marvelous season but never played more than 69 games in any of his nearly three losing campaigns (including the 12-70 debacle of 2009-10) before getting dealt to the Jazz at the 2011 trade deadline.
That blockbuster brought forth the Deron Williams Error. A legitimate All-Star in Utah, Williams’ tenure here was rife with trips to the doctor to remedy all his boo-boos, most prominently painful ankles. No one ever confirmed whether he received any psychological treatments to solve his gagging reflex in clutch situations. Williams was mercifully bought out two summers ago with two seasons remaining on a five-year, approximately $99 million contract.
For the ensuing 2015-16 season, the Nets turned to Jarrett Jack. OK, he wasn’t the finest choice, considering his shoot-first mentality. But though he was more suited for a reserve role, he at least had the Nets competitive on most nights.
Until the first game after the new year, when Jack tore his right ACL in Boston and was done for the season. The Nets lost 38 of their remaining 49 contests.
Which, believe it or not, was better than the Nets fared last season without Lin, the centerpiece of Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks’ summer 2016 makeover after signing a three-year free agent contract.
Alas, injuries, mainly to his hamstring, diffused all the positive energy. Lin was limited to 36 games. Brooklyn went 7-39 in those other 46 affairs and 9-45 in any game in which he played 20 or fewer minutes.
If that wasn’t horrific enough, Greivis Vasquez, Lin’s veteran backup, couldn’t even make it out of October. Besieged by ankle woes, Vasquez’s season — and NBA career — ended after playing just three games for Brooklyn.
Marks went to great lengths last summer to ensure that his club would be “better equipped” this season to deal with a blow to his starting point guard. Marks traded his most marketable asset in center Brook Lopez for Russell, a 21-year-old former No. 2 overall draft pick. The only question was supposed to be whether Russell could coexist with Lin.
Instead, like last season, Dinwiddie has risen to the starter role by default. The 24-year-old was originally signed out of the D-League to a partially guaranteed three-year minimum deal 11 months ago.
By that measure, Marks is getting tremendous value out of Dinwiddie. He’s the poster boy for the Nets’ development culture that is so often emphasized in lieu of focusing on the team’s dismal on-court record.
Even after his off shooting night, Dinwiddie has converted 19 of 46 3-pointers (41.3 percent) while posting an excellent 5.0 assist-to-turnover ratio in his 13 games.
It will be Dinwiddie’s show until whenever Russell gets back on the court, since coach Kenny Atkinson said Tuesday that the Nets have no plans to fortify the position. Reserve minutes will be filled “by committee,” Atkinson said. Sophomores Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead were tasked against Boston, though neither is fully equipped to handle the role for long stretches. We may see wing Sean Kilpatrick going forward as well.
This is not the month you want to be short-handed, however. After hosting Utah on Friday, the Nets face a gauntlet in the next two weeks that includes games against Golden State, Cleveland, Portland, Memphis and Houston.
Yeah, things can get a lot worse in Brooklyn.
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