The New Jersey Nets’ season is once again on life support. Same phrase, different year.
Despite Sunday night’s 96-67 stomping of the Philadelphia 76ers, the Nets find themselves 13 games under .500 and on the outside of the East playoff picture. With five contests remaining, these type of wins matter more for head coach Lawrence Frank’s resume than anything else.
The term “under .500″ doesn’t bode well for the sixth-year coach. After four straight playoff appearances, the Nets appear on their way to back-to-back missed post seasons. Frank, who has a $4.5 million guaranteed deal for 2009-10, and his club aren’t ready to give up just yet.
“We’ve just got to come out like we did tonight,” rookie center Brook Lopez said about the 29-point victory. ” We’re going to play every game with our best effort and do what we can.”
The Nets still have an opportunity to capture the eighth playoff spot in the East thanks to Sunday’s win. But, one more loss and the door completely shuts. With Boston, Detroit and Orlando — all playoff teams so far — ahead on the schedule, the Nets’ road to the post season is going to be sudden death.
“Right now, it’s just trying to win games to get into the playoffs,” Vince Carter said. “We feel very capable, and anything can happen once we get there, but getting there is our quest right now.”
New Jersey isn’t built to contend with the top-tier NBA teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Keyon Dooling will never outduel Kobe Bryant in a seven-game series. Similarly, Ryan Anderson has no chance against LeBron James. One night, maybe. Seven games, sorry.
The Nets’ core is currently constructed of Carter, Lopez and Devin Harris. There’s still a chance the Nets try and trade Carter away this off-season. If they do, they won’t get much in return. Not because Carter isn’t still a 20-point-a-night guard, but because of his $20-million plus contract. They also risk losing fans from what little attendance they do have by making that move.
Harris is one of the top young point guards in the league, averaging 22 points and seven assists per game this year. He and Lopez, a Rookie of the Year candidate, give the Nets youth to build upon in this year’s draft and perhaps free agency. They can get by with Yi Jianlian at the forward spot for next season, but should look for a combo guard-forward or power forward with their first-round pick.
Lopez knows these next five games are critical, and he’ll have to do his part to help out in the paint. The Stanford product feels the experience he’s gained has prepared him for these match-ups against the likes of Dwight Howard and Rasheed Wallace.
“Knowing that you’re playing on the same level as them is a big deal for me. My team has shown me enough confidence to get me the ball or involve me in plays against them. If I make a mistake they just keep telling me ‘keep going.’ It’s just been a great learning experience for me,” Lopez said.
One game at a time. That’s how Nets coaches and players are viewing this upcoming stretch. After all, there’s no other way in but win.
“At this point, it’s just another game,” forward Jarvis Hayes said. “We just have to execute as best as we can. You can’t put anything more into it.”