NBA AM: Lopez Punching Nets’ Playoff Ticket
The last time the New Jersey Nets made the playoffs the team was led by Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, and Richard Jefferson, while featuring Clifford Robinson as a valuable role player off the bench.
That was the 2007 season…. and times have changed.
Since then, the Nets have compiled a woeful 111-239 (32 percent) record and have had four different head coaches roaming the sidelines.
The team was officially purchased by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov toward the end of the 2010 season and he immediately promised to bring Nets fans a “championship team.” While the Nets are far from that level of competition, at the one-third mark of the current condensed season, the team is just three games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Nets’ fourth year center Brook Lopez, who has yet to play this season, sees no reason why the team can’t snap their four season playoff drought – this year.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we can definitely be a playoff team,” Lopez confidently told HOOPSWORLD. “I know that’s a goal around here. We’ve been doing extremely well on the road. We had a little lull at home, but we’ve been doing fantastic and I expect the same effort.”
The Nets are positioned to make a strong push for a playoff berth but the club must avoid the injury bug, which has plagued them throughout the season, down the stretch.
Lopez is on the shelf due to a broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot, emerging rookie Marshon Brooks is suffering from a broken toe, and reserve forward Damion James is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his right foot. Meanwhile, veterans Mehmet Okur and DeShawn Stevenson are battling smaller injuries, but also missing court time.
However, the teams above the Nets in the hunt for a seventh or eighth seed, Milwaukee, Cleveland and New York, have done little during the early going to establish themselves as juggernauts.
The key for New Jersey will be the return of Lopez, who does not currently have a timetable set for his return. The injury was expected to sideline him for 6-8 weeks, but it’s been roughly six weeks and the center still hasn’t been cleared for full contact drills – although he’s been working frequently with Nets trainer Tim Walsh.
“There’s no question I’m excited to get back and be a part of it,” Lopez said. “I’m very anxious and Timmy (Walsh) has been doing a good job of keeping me in check and watching at all times. I feel like I’ve been pretty good discerning myself. But when I feel like I need to do some more, he’ll get me off the floor.”
Watching the team from afar, Lopez has one area he believes is an integral part of any future playoff push – sound defense.
“I think the ball has been moving very well [offensively],” Lopez said. “We’ve been getting great looks and I think that’s really attributed to what we’re doing on defense against a lot of these teams. I’d definitely say that defense is our strength, no question. No question our offense is improving, but, you know, when we’re good on offense we take great open shots and get good looks in rhythm and that helps our defense.”
Lopez was the Nets’ leading scorer in 2011, averaging 20.4 points per contest, but his defense may be what the Nets miss most of all. Without Lopez the Nets are giving up 98.96 points per game, making them the fifth-worst defensive team in the NBA. They also allow opponents to shoot a league-high 49% against them.
If New Jersey is really going to return to the playoffs this season, they’re going to need Brook Lopez to return before the Bucks and/or Knicks correct their issues and go on a tear. It might just be that the postseason is out of reach by the time Lopez is back in uniform.
Pacers’ Lance Stephenson Patiently Waiting: In 2011, the Indiana Pacers clinched their first postseason berth since 2006 and proved to a pesky opponent for the top-seeded Chicago Bulls before being bounced in the first round.
Not resting on their laurels the team acquired underrated shooting guard George Hill from the San Antonio Spurs on draft night, signed former All-Star forward David West in free agency and before the season began traded for rugged forward Louis Amundson to further bolster their frontcourt depth.
The Pacers have quickly established themselves as a deep and talented team to be reckoned with early in the season.
But when there is loads of talent on a roster, someone has to be left out of the nightly rotation even though on most teams the player would receive minutes.
Enter second year guard Lance Stephenson who is currently caught up in the numbers game.
However, instead of sulking, Stephenson is enjoying the team’s winning, staying patient, using this season as a learning experience and appreciating his boost playing time compared to last season.
“It gives me confidence,” Stephenson told HOOPSWORLD regarding the increase of his on court time. “All I need is the confidence knowing that I can play with the guys on the floor and the sky’s the limit. The minutes that I get, I love the minutes and I’m going to keep working hard so I can get more. It helps me. I think it helped me last year, not playing to see how other players play and really be like, looking for the little things that people do and try to add it to my game so when I get on the court it will come easy.”
One of the toughest adjustments for ballyhooed players to make entering the professional ranks is accepting a more limited role.
Stephenson says the adjustment period wasn’t a long one, but the added focus on defense was tough to get accustomed to from the start.
“Defensive-wise it was hard because I didn’t know really know how to play help side and stuff like that because in college we just play hard defense and get away with little stuff,” Stephenson said. “But when I got here [Indiana] I really got exposed because I didn’t know where to be at, whether to be at the right spots and I learned that within last year and this year.”
The Pacers are currently 14-6 and rank fifth in the Eastern Conference with head coach Frank Vogel at the helm.
Stephenson believes Vogel is one of the primary reasons for the team’s early success, being able to relate to the players and keep egos in check.
“I love him,” Stephenson said. “He’s doing a great job. He’s on the same page with everybody on the team. He doesn’t shortcut anybody, he tells the truth, he tells them what they need to work on and he’s just really honest and that’s what we need in a coach and he’s helping us a lot with being a great coach like that.”
Another coach Stephenson gives praise to in his development is Pacers assistant Brian Shaw who had a fourteen year career as a player. Shaw has worked extensively with Stephenson on his defense as a bigger off guard.
“It’s a great because he’s a big guy just like me and he tells me that it was hard for him to hold small guys so he’d use his arms sometimes and do little stuff to make him on better on defense,” Stephenson told HOOPSWORLD. “Every time I come out of the game I ask him, ‘what do you think I did wrong? What do you think I need to work on when I get in again?’ and he helps me a lot.”
As the Pacers continue to win together, Stephenson has noticed a difference in the locker room amongst his teammates – more confidence and a bit of a swagger emerging.
“We’re more confident about ourselves, more than last year,” Stephenson said. “We know we can play with other teams now, we know we can match up well with anybody so if we just keep playing hard it will come.”
Doc Rivers Praising Rookie Kyrie Irving: The NBA is a changing landscape. At one point the league was dominated by a plethora of all-world centers, with every team’s sole intent on landing an elite big man.
However, the modern NBA has become more a guard dominated game with elite centers few and far between.
Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers believes having a game changing point guard is a must in today’s NBA, based on style of play.
“It helps to have a point guard, especially with the way the game is played now, where you’re not allowed to touch anyone on the perimeter,” Rivers told Jim Ingraham of the News-Herald. “When I played, you could play without a point guard because you could get up on the guy and defend. Now, it’s hard.”
After studying rookie point guard Kyrie Irving, the old school Rivers left with a good impression and firmly believes the youngster has the talent to be the future of the franchise Cleveland is expecting him to become.
“I like how he plays,” Rivers said of Irving. “He’s serious about the game. He’s not worried about looking flashy. He’s a throwback guard. An old-school guard. He plays with spirit. He comes to play, not to put on a show. He’s a feisty, tough guard, with talent.”
Irving currently leads the Cavaliers in points and assists, averaging 18.1 and 4.9 respectively.
The Cavaliers, who most thought would endure another brutal rebuilding season, are 8-12 but only one game behind Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot.
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