OAKLAND, Calif. — A year ago, it was Brook Lopez who played the elder statesman role for the Nets and tried to shepherd his young teammates through a disastrous 1-27 midseason stretch. But since Lopez was traded away last summer, the role of mentor has fallen to nine-year veteran DeMarre Carroll, who is having the best season of his career and is setting a great example for a team in a 2-15 tailspin.
Carroll’s leadership figured to be tested again when the Nets faced the defending NBA champion Warriors Tuesday night at Oracle Arena. “I think the biggest thing is just trying to keep everybody in good spirits,” Carroll said following the morning shootaround. “We’re losing a lot of close games at the end. It comes down to one or two plays.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding until we get that breakthrough. Hopefully, we can get it sooner rather than later, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to build something here and trying to continue into next season.”
The Nets (20-44) lost the first three games of this trip in excruciating fashion, with each decided in the final minute of regulation or in overtime. It takes a mental toll, but Carroll has emphasized that the best teams don’t dwell on losses. They regroup and press forward.
“I think practices have been really upbeat,” Carroll said. “Guys are still smiling, guys are still excited to be here, excited for the opportunity. We just have to get out there and do it, have to finish games. It’s coming down to the last two minutes. It’s a big step for our young group to try to finish some of these games.”
When they faced Golden State at Barclays Center in November, the Nets fell behind by 28 points but rallied within four in the final quarter before losing by seven. However, the Warriors rested NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant that night. The task of covering Durant fell to Carroll on Tuesday night.
“Definitely a tough guard,” Carroll said. “Durant is, I believe, one of the top two players in the league. He can do it on both ends. He’s picked his defense up tremendously since coming over here to Golden State, he can score anywhere on the floor, and he’s 7-foot. We have a lot of respect for Durant. He’s a great basketball player.”
Despite the Nets’ recent struggles, Carroll said there are positives on which to draw, such as the return to the lineup of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, both of whom are playing off the bench and injecting energy and defense.
“Overall, we’re there, we’re competing,” Carroll said. “We have our whole team back, and we kind of look like the team at the beginning of the season. If we can get a couple more guys to just jump on and get back to playing the level we know they’re capable of playing, I think those last three games we easily win.”
One player who might be pressing is D’Angelo Russell. He returned to the starting lineup the past five games, but he sat out the final 15:58 of the loss to the Clippers on Sunday in Los Angeles.
Carroll has developed a strong relationship with the 21-year-old Russell and has provided support all season. “I just told him to stick with it,” Carroll said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about one guy; it’s about team.
“I feel like the pressure a lot of people put on DLo, he doesn’t really deserve it. It’s not about him, it’s about the overall team. Pressure should be on the team, not one person like DLo. I just feel like it’s unfair.”