The parallels between last season’s strong finish and the challenge the Nets face to turn this season around over the final 22 games are unmistakable. The Nets endured a 1-27 stretch when Jeremy Lin was injured for all but the final two games of that span, but they went 10-11 as soon as he rejoined the starting lineup.
Now the Nets are mired in a 1-12 slump, but starting power forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who missed the past 11 games with a right groin strain, and backup point guard Caris LeVert, who missed the past five games with a sprained right knee, appear set to return when the Nets (19-41) face Chicago Monday night at Barclays Center. Both practiced fully on Friday and Saturday and hope to bring the defensive energy the Nets have missed in their absence.
Hollis-Jefferson won’t start and the minutes of both players will be limited when they first return, but the important thing is the Nets will be whole again. “Being whole is so key,” coach Kenny Atkinson said following Saturday’s practice. “That’s what’s going to get us moving back in the right direction.
“They’re our energy guys. We obviously have been really struggling rebounding the ball. Rondae is one of our best rebounders, and Caris rebounds at a high level, too . . . We put Rondae on usually the best big player. We’ve put him on guards. He plugs a lot of holes, so it will be great for our defense getting him back.”
It should not be overlooked Hollis-Jefferson and LeVert help the offense, too. Hollis-Jefferson is averaging 14.3 points to go with 6.3 rebounds and has been an effective mid-range scorer. LeVert is averaging 11.6 points plus 3.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists, and he leads the Nets with 108 deflections on defense.
Describing what it has been like to watch the Nets’ slump, Hollis-Jefferson said, “It’s been tough to watch my guys struggle out there when I know the effort, the compete level could be better. It’s just something about being out there and knowing you can contribute. It just sits in your stomach and you think about it all the time.”
Comparing himself to former Bulls forward Dennis Rodman and how he rebounded beyond his size limitations, Hollis-Jefferson said, “I’m hunting rebounds. [Rodman] was 6-7-ish. I’m hunting rebounds.”
LeVert also is focusing on defense. “Hopefully, I come in and make an impact, especially on the defensive side of the ball, making hustle plays, rebounding and then taking control of the group,” LeVert said. “I just want to play my game, make the right plays, play the right defense and try to make the group better . . . pick up the defensive intensity and make the other team feel us out there.”
As a rookie, LeVert joined the starting lineup at the same time Lin returned from his injury and had a big hand in last season’s turnaround. He acknowledged the similar circumstances but said the Nets are focusing on this season.
“I feel like Jeremy was definitely a huge part of our team last year,” LeVert said. “He definitely helped us get some wins late in the season for sure. When Rondae and myself come back, we’re just trying to give the team energy, trying to make us better. We’re just trying to get better right now with the group we have and finish strong, gets as many wins as we can and get some momentum going into the offseason.”