If timing is everything, according to conventional wisdom, then having two days of rest to prepare to face the Western Conference-leading Lakers playing the second game of a back-to-back set favored the Nets Thursday night at Barclays Center.
But the timing for injuries to backup centers DeAndre Jordan (dislocated right middle finger) and Nic Claxton (left shoulder soreness) could not have been worse considering the Lakers’ size and defensive prowess. Those injuries meant the Nets would have to go with a small lineup that included power forward Wilson Chandler backing up starting center Jarrett Allen against a Lakers lineup that included 6-10 center Dwight Howard and 6-10 Anthony Davis and 6-9 LeBron James forming a superstar tandem at the forward positions. The Nets got a break when Lakers 7-foot center JaVale McGee missed the game with flu.
“It’s a great opportunity to compete against a great team,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Scoring is the problem with them. They’re an elite defense. McGee and Howard are absolutely playing, really protecting the rim. They obviously have elite perimeter defenders with LeBron and Danny Green. Anthony Davis has turned into a two-way player in this league. Great challenge for us.”
Such a supreme challenge comes at the toughest of times for the Nets, who came in riding a four-game losing streak and who were 2-11 in their previous 13 games. The only bright spot was the return of point guard Kyrie Irving after sitting out a loss to the 76ers on Monday because of hamstring tightness, but he figured to be on a minute restriction as a precaution against re-injury.
Given the type of switching defense the Nets like to play, power forward Taurean Prince was expected to defend both Davis and James at times, and the same held true for small forward Joe Harris. Because James handles the ball so much, it also was likely that 6-6 Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie would guard him at times.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult matchup,” Harris said. “They’re pretty big across the board. LeBron handles the ball a lot. A lot is understanding we’re not going to be able to go out there and hold LeBron to zero points. So you make things tough on him, kind of limit the amount of touches he has and influence that he has on the game because he’s so good at facilitating for his teammates and himself. So try and get the ball in other guys’ hands and make someone else make plays.”
But as Atkinson suggested, the Nets have been struggling at the offensive end lately and figured to have problems keeping up. Three-point shooters Harris and Prince have seen their numbers drop recently. The 76ers gave the Nets a rough time with their size and rim protection and forced them into taking three-pointers they failed to convert at a high enough rate to win down the stretch. In the fourth quarter of two losses to the 76ers in the past three games, the Nets were held to 16 and 20 points.
Describing his problems on offense, Prince said, “It’s just not going in right now. All of them feel good. I’m still shooting seven threes a game, so that lets you know my confidence is still there. They’ve just got to drop.”
That’s not what Atkinson sees. The coach expressed his confidence in Prince as a shooter, defender and person, but he added, “I just want him to be more confident. He’s still a young player searching for his confidence. A confident Taurean Prince, we need that. I keep saying he’s our ‘X factor.’ Not to put pressure on him, but it’s important he plays well in that position.”
Really, it was important for the entire Nets team to deliver an improved performance against the Lakers and begin to rebuild their flagging confidence.