SALT LAKE CITY — As the clock counting down to tipoff ticked away, Nets point guard Jeremy Lin was busy putting up jumpers.
Shot after shot after shot.
The comeback from injury doesn’t just happen while the game clock is running. It starts with hours of preparation, jumper after jumper to get his legs under him.
Friday night’s 112-97 loss to the Jazz was Lin’s fourth game back after missing two months with a left hamstring injury. He had seven points and two assists in 16 minutes, continuing a transition that has been relatively smooth, by most accounts.
Despite the small sample size of games with the Nets, and despite playing limited minutes, the point guard in his seventh season has made an immediate impact upon his return.
“He’s been a big key to this team,” forward Trevor Booker said. “To have him back means a lot for the team. He’s one of our leaders, so when he’s on the court, we’re definitely more confident, and I think it shows.”
It showed Wednesday night when the Nets ended a 16-game losing streak with a win at Sacramento, only their third road win this season.
In that game, Lin’s minutes were increased slightly, from 15 in each of his first two outings to 20 against the Kings. The extra minutes came in the fourth quarter and Lin delivered. He finished with 17 points and teamed with Brook Lopez to score 14 of the Nets’ final 18 points in a 109-100 victory.
“He’s made me a better coach, I know that,” Kenny Atkinson said. “The experience, the calm . . . the comfort level I have, I have to coach a lot less, which is a good thing for our team.
“It’s what we thought when we brought him in. The [few] games that he’s played with us, it’s kind of what I thought. I think he’ll get better.”
How important is it to have lucky No. 7 on the court? Entering Friday, he was the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game and had scored in double figures in the 13 games in which he played more than 15 minutes. Equally important has been his ability to distribute. He had 12 assists and four turnovers in his limited minutes after missing 26 games.
“At the end of the day, you just go out and play basketball,” Booker said. “That’s what he’s doing. It’s just all about getting him back into game shape.”
Sitting and watching hasn’t been something Lin has had to do much in his career. He’ll play in fewer games in 2016-17 than in any other season since his breakout year with the Knicks in 2011-12, when he played in 35 games. He averaged 77.5 games in the past four seasons with the Rockets, Lakers and Hornets.
With 22 games remaining and the Nets sitting at the bottom of the NBA standings, there’s little reason to rush Lin back fully. Atkinson expressed as much before Friday night’s game.
“We’re going to gradually increase him,” he said. “We’ll get the information from our performance team and doctors. We’re not going to rush this thing. We’re going to do it gradually.”
In Friday night’s game, Quincy Acy had 18 points in 18 minutes off the bench and Lopez had 17 for the Nets (10-50), who fell behind 38-26 after a quarter and brought an 18-point deficit into the fourth quarter. George Hill had 34 points and seven assists and Derrick Favors added 19 points and 12 rebounds for the Jazz (38-24).
Booker returns. Booker played the past two seasons with Utah and spent a few minutes before the game catching up with his former teammates and coaches. He joked that his familiarity with Friday night’s opponent could bode well for the Nets.
“It was good to be back, to see the fans and some familiar faces,” he said. “It feels good. There’s nothing but love. When we were going through scouting, they’d call a play and I was like, ‘Yeah, I know that one.’ I was trying to give away a couple of their keys.”