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Lichtenstein: Nets Squishing Injury Bugs In Maintaining Surprising .500 Pace

Steve Lichtenstein
January 15, 2019 - 1:38 pm
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In the corporate world, attrition can sometimes provide a boost to performance.  Fewer employees can make a company leaner, more efficient.

That’s not the case in the NBA, where every team is at risk of devastating injuries.  You lose a star player or even multiple rotation pieces, and you’re lucky if you can tread water in the short term.

Like when the Nets saw guard Caris LeVert, a burgeoning talent, go down with a dislocation in his right foot from a fall in Minnesota on November 12.  Brooklyn subsequently dropped to 8-18 after an eight-game losing streak.  The early-season promise looked like it would dissipate into another desultory campaign.

But then the Nets suddenly switched gears starting with an early December victory over Toronto in overtime. It continued even after starting wing Allen Crabbe joined LeVert on the sidelines with an ailing right knee. Crabbe hasn’t played in a month.

At the end of December, starting power forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who has had adductor issues (on both sides of his body) since the summer, sustained another strain.  Then last week Jared Dudley, Hollis-Jefferson’s fill-in, pulled his hamstring.  Finally, guard Shabazz Napier, a hit-or-miss reserve who was brought back into the rotation a few weeks ago out of necessity, was also felled by a hamstring injury that forced him to miss Monday’s home affair versus the Celtics.          

Yet with each injury, the Nets have not missed a beat.  They are one of the league’s hottest teams since that win over the Raptors, going 14-5 after their 109-102 victory on Monday.

None of Brooklyn’s five defeats would be classified as “bad losses”—there’s no shame in losing on the road to Charlotte, Milwaukee, Boston and Toronto or at home to Indiana.  That’s four of the Eastern Conference’s top teams plus a Hornets squad that’s nipping at the seventh-place Nets’ heels, just a game back.    

The Nets beat Boston with undersized Treveon Graham starting and playing 27 minutes at power forward, for heaven’s sake.  Graham, who missed 37 games earlier this season with a torn left hamstring, is shooting below the Mendoza line—he’s made just 7-of-40 (17.5 percent) field goal attempts on the season, including 3-for-26 (11.5 percent) from three-point range after Monday’s 0-for-5 (0-for-4 on three-pointers) brickfest.

This isn’t just atypical behavior for Brooklyn, who crumbled the last two seasons whenever Jeremy Lin and/or D’Angelo Russell got hurt for extended periods. It’s defying NBA logic. 

The Celtics, who were missing All Star point guard Kyrie Irving and key reserves Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes, were clearly out of sorts. That’s normal.

How have the Nets managed to buck the trend?

You can start with Russell, who is putting together a contract run for the ages.  If you take out the Nets’ blowout loss in Boston last week, the pending restricted free agent is averaging 26.7 points per game in his last seven games with a shooting split of 50/39/95.  He’s also averaging 7.1 assists with 2.7 turnovers per game, the kind of ratio Nets coach Kenny Atkinson envisioned when he gave Russell greater freedom in the wake of the injury glut.

“There’s no fear,” Atkinson said of Russell, who broke Monday’s game open with an 18-point barrage in the third quarter.  “He believes in himself.  He’s got tremendous, tremendous confidence.  With guys out, we’ve given him a little more of the green light.  I think we need it—we need him to be aggressive.  We need him to keep doing that.”  

Russell played 37 minutes on Monday, the most he has logged in regulation as a Net. Atkinson shortened his rotation to eight guys, which might be a low in his two season-plus on the job.

In fairness, the Nets have received contributions throughout the roster in this stretch.  Spencer Dinwiddie may have cooled down this month, but he was a beast through much of December.  He was the league leader in points per game off the bench (18.5 ppg) through December 27.  Joe Harris is second in the league in three-point field goal percentage (47.3 percent).  Ed Davis is first in rebound percentage (22.4).  And Rodions Kurucs, a 20-year-old second-round pick, who was thrust into the starting lineup when Crabbe went down, has the highest plus/minus per game of any rookie who averages at least 20 minutes per game.

These are some of the proverbial next men up, and they have delivered.

The hope is that the Nets can hang around .500 until the wounded, LeVert in particular, heal.  After a trip to Houston on Wednesday, the near-term schedule is not too daunting. 

Of course, there could very well be unintended consequences of reintegrating all these injured players.  There is a real possibility that in a month we could be talking about subtraction by addition.   

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.