PHILADELPHIA — The return of Jeremy Lin after an absence of nearly six weeks because of a hamstring injury has been complicated by back stiffness that might force the Nets to limit his playing time a while longer. But Lin’s presence, even in limited doses, has made for a dramatic improvement.
The Nets (7-18) held fourth-quarter leads but were unable to close out wins in the two games he played Monday night in Houston and Friday night in Orlando. In between, although Lin sat out with lower-back stiffness, they won a home game over the Lakers in which there seemed to be a carry-over of his influence on their approach from the previous game.
Coach Kenny Atkinson said Lin was “a little out of rhythm” at the end of the Nets’ 118-111 loss to the Magic, who took control with an 11-2 run down the stretch. But you could hear the excitement in the coach’s voice about the prospect of Lin’s return to his regular starting role, although he probably will come off the bench against the 76ers Sunday night at Wells Fargo Center.
“Hopefully, he’ll be back full-time now and we can really work on our execution and what we want to do at the end of the game,” Atkinson said.
Asked if he expects to return Lin to his full-time role right away, Atkinson said he might have jumped the gun. “That’s the wish,” he said. “I’ll talk with the doctors, talk with the medical team and figure that out. Obviously, our wish as a coaching staff is to get him into his normal role. But I listen to everything they say, and we need to be smart about his reintegration to the team. Tonight was a good start. So we’ll see what the next game looks like.”
Lin scored 17 points in 19 minutes against the Magic but was disappointed about not pulling out the win at crunch time. He also was careful not to put a timetable on when he might be physically capable of a full workload, noting the plan in Orlando was to play about 20 minutes.
“I didn’t know if I could play until before the game,” Lin said. “I wasn’t feeling great in shootaround, but now I feel really good. It’s not going to be a crazy long process of building me up. It won’t be that bad.”
The Nets canceled practice Saturday before flying to Philadelphia, so that was another day of rest for Lin’s back. Brook Lopez said the Nets have learned to adjust to whoever is playing point guard, whether it’s Lin, rookie Isaiah Whitehead, who had a career-high eight assists against the Magic, or newcomer Spencer Dinwiddie.
“As long as guys keep playing with confidence, running our system and we all play with trust, we’ll be all right,” Lopez said.
The experience Whitehead has received will be valuable to his development in the long run, and two-guard Sean Kilpatrick has learned to run the point when called upon. Both are slashers who should team well with Lin. Add rookie Caris LeVert to the mix now that his rehab after foot surgery is over, and it’s almost as if the Nets can reset with a healthy team and start to elevate their level of play.
“We have a lot of guys healthy, and we’re just going to build and go forward,” Lin said. “I feel like we’ve learned a lot about ourselves. We’ve learned a lot about our weaknesses.
“I’m excited. I love the process of getting better, and I think this team does, too. I’m looking forward to just playing with these guys and getting that experience, and I think at some point in the season, we’ll have a breakthrough.”