This past weekend was by far one, if not the single-most exciting two-game stretch of the Nets’ season. When the year is all said and done, we’ll look back at Feb. 18 and 19 as the highlight of the year. Not only did Jersey get its signature win thus far for 2012, the team also got its signature player back in the lineup. Had the Nets pulled off a win on Sunday, it would’ve been the triumvirate of good news. But two out of three isn’t a bad percentage at all.
Let’s start with Sunday’s game, a 92-85 loss at home to a mediocre Milwaukee Bucks squad. Deron Williams dropped 26 points and six assists, and Anthony Morrow went 7-for-11 for 17 points off the bench, but the story of the day for the Nets was the return of All-Star center Brook Lopez.
Out since December with a broken foot, Lopez saw immediate action and was in the starting lineup. His numbers weren’t outstanding at all, and he would earn criticism had this been any other night. He played in limited time in his first game of the season, a total of 21 minutes while shooting just 2-for-7 from the field and a dreadful 5-for-11 from the free throw line (nine points total). But he gets a pass for obvious rationales — the rust of not having played a meaningful regular season and lack of in-game experience with guys like D-Will and MarShon Brooks, among other reasons.
There’s going to be an adjustment period for Lopez to get back into game shape. Physically, Lopez might be ready to play and run up and down the floor, but other areas of the game — setting a pick, taking a charge, boxing out — will take time getting used to. Getting in these three games before the All-Star break was a good move by Nets’ brass; Lopez will have time to heal up and further prepare for the second half.
But adjustments are also required by Lopez’s teammates, for guys like D-Will and Brooks especially. For much of the season, D-Will and Brooks have carried the brunt of the team’s scoring. With Lopez, the Nets now have three legitimate scorers (Lopez is a career 17-point man, in case you forgot). D-Will has gotten everyone involved throughout the year, but he should have no problem consistently going to a third scorer every night, especially since the new option is an inside post player.
And without question, guys like Kris Humphries and Shelden Williams are going to have an easy time adjusting with Lopez back in the paint. With Lopez as the number one option inside, Humphries and Williams won’t be counted as much for post scoring, and their rebounding on the offensive glass should likely increase. Case in point, Williams had 15 rebounds against the Bucks, nine of which were on the offensive end.
Of course, Lopez’s return won’t mean much to the Nets’ season if it doesn’t translate into wins. Already, the Nets are 0-1 since Lopez returned to the lineup. Shooting remains the Achilles’ heel: as a team, the Nets shot a dismal 34 percent from the floor, including 21 percent from 3-point range. D-Will got his shots (all 24 of them), but he only drew the bottom of the net on 10 of those shots. Brooks (not Brook Lopez, sorry if I confuse ya!), the Nets’ other consistent scorer shot just 3 of 14 from the floor. I’m sorry, you can bring in Dwight Howard but you’re still not going to win if your starting backcourt goes 13 for 38.
The Nets’ showing against the Bucks was the complete opposite of what happened the previous day against the Central Division-leading Bulls. Against Chicago, the Nets seemed to have everything going for them — scoring, rebounding, defense and a Derrick Rose injury.
I don’t fully recall what I was doing at the time, but I randomly tuned into the YES network and caught the opening of the game in Chicago. At first glance, I couldn’t believe my eyes and I ended up doing a double take. Maybe a triple take. Kris Humphries had just threw down a rim-rocker to put the Nets up 24-5 in the first quarter.
What!? The Nets had 24 points and there was still more than 5 minutes remaining in the first quarter!? The Nets actually had a 19-point lead, let alone any lead, against the Bulls on the road!? The Nets didn’t blow the huge lead and held on to win, 97-85.!?
Apparently, it was all true.
Remember when I called the Nets the league’s most enigmatic team in the league? The loss to Milwaukee and the win over Chicago is the perfect example. I went through the dismal numbers of the Bucks’ game, now look at the stats from the win over the Bulls. As a team, the Nets shot 40 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent from 3-point range. D-Will was 5-of-9 from behind the arc and scored a game-high 29 points. Humphries had a monster of a double-double, with 24 points and 18 boards. Brooks had a stellar game with 19 points, and Shelden Williams chipped in with eight points and 14 rebounds.
Granted, Derrick Rose was absent from the game, but in the games that Rose has missed, the Bulls have still picked apart opponents and shut down teams even without their star guard. The Nets win was a game in which they proved that on any given night, they can run with the best of them. They can do that because they have the All-Star point guard and quality shooters and rebounders around him.
Now, the Nets have an above average post player to join that All-Star guard. There’s nothing really stopping the Nets from moving up the ladder in the Eastern Conference. It’s probably too late to think about the playoffs this year, but we now know what this team is capable of accomplishing.
But it’s likely that the biggest accomplishments will come next year.