HOUSTON — A Nets season that falls into the category of a “learning experience” for everyone in the organization has reached a holding pattern in which significant progress is impossible until injured point guard Jeremy Lin takes part in a real game.
That might change as soon as Monday night against the Rockets at Toyota Center. After missing his 17th straight game in Saturday night’s instructive 130-101 loss to the Spurs, the Nets on Sunday surprisingly declared Lin “probable” to play against Houston despite the fact that he has had only one full practice and Sunday’s workout was canceled.
Despite the lengthy down time to recover from a right hamstring strain, Lin has used his bench stay to his advantage.
“Just in terms of being able to observe the team, I feel like I know exactly what I need to do when I come back or what I need to bring,” he said before the Spurs game. “So it’s been helpful in some ways. I guess that’s the silver lining.”
Asked to describe his approach, Lin explained: “When I come back, I want to bring a lot of leadership. I understand better how I think certain units and certain players play together and what plays and sets to be in primarily with that lineup. I just want to bring stability more than anything, and leadership.”
Decisive leadership is critical for a team with so many young players in expanded roles for the first time. Reflecting on how quickly the Spurs game got away when the Nets trailed by three near the end of the first quarter before a 14-0 San Antonio run, coach Kenny Atkinson said: “I thought we rushed our shots. That was the first time all season I felt like our shot selection really went south.”
Nets center Brook Lopez had three of the Nets’ first nine shots and then got only eight more touches the rest of the game, including four that resulted in foul shots rather than field-goal attempts (Lopez finished with seven shots).
The Nets have been at their best recently when driving to the rim first and letting open three-pointers follow naturally.When Lin returns, that’s where the emphasis will lie.
“If I come back, I’m a downhill player, too, so we’ll hopefully get more paint touches and rim touches,” he said. “But you can’t really predict it. If they’re giving you a lot of open threes, you’ve got to shoot them.”
With Lin’s experience running pick-and-roll, he is likely to recognize when Lopez has a mismatch because of a switch. Lin has helped current starting point guard Isaiah Whitehead and backup Sean Kilpatrick, but Whitehead is a rookie and Kilpatrick is a natural two-guard playing out of position.
After the Nets were schooled by the Spurs, who had 38 assists, Atkinson said his team can use it as a valuable lesson in ball movement. “I know I’m going to learn a lot,” he said. “I want my players to feel that and see what it’s like. We are going to get better from it.”
Lin’s return remains the key to implementing those lessons.