After missing 42 games and nearly three months while recovering from a terrible dislocated right ankle injury, there simply was no way Caris LeVert was going to pick up where he left off as the Nets’ primary leader and go-to guy. Too much had changed in the interim from his own preparedness to the emergence of D’Angelo Russell as an All-Star point guard.
But with only 21 games left following the Nets’ visit to Charlotte Saturday night, there is precious little time for LeVert and Russell to adjust to playing with each other again, and they must do it under the intense pressure of the Nets’ playoff push. Their struggle to make it work was on display in the Nets’ first game back from the All-Star break against a tough Portland team.
Russell had a poor 4-for-16 shooting night and finished minus-30 for the game in about 29 minutes, and LeVert wasn’t much better on 4-for-11 shooting when he finished minus-13 over a little more than 20 minutes. “It’s just getting used to playing limited minutes and trying to find my rhythm in the minutes I’m given,” said LeVert, who shot 3 of 15 from three-point range in his first four games back and is working hard to regain his rhythm.
Asked following the loss to the Trail Blazers if it feels as if he and Russell are starting from square one, “LeVert told Newsday, “I feel like we had good rhythm at the beginning of the season, honestly. It’s definitely been a struggle, but I don’t think it’s due to that. I don’t think that [adjusting to Russell] is the reason we lost tonight or the Bulls game or the Raptors game. It was other things.”
Coach Kenny Atkinson has defined the key variables as poor defensive rebounding and too many turnovers. Those flaws are magnified on nights when the Nets shoot poorly from three-point range.
But as well as LeVert and Russell have played in the past, there’s a sense the Nets can take another leap when those two hit their stride as a tandem. “Yeah, anytime you’re coming back after missing a certain amount of games, it’s going to be tough,” Russell said of LeVert. “It gets magnified because it gets compared to how you were when you weren’t injured. I think we’re going to figure it out.”
Although LeVert has shown some frustration with the early results of his comeback, he called it “a blessing to even be out here considering what happened a couple months ago. Whether I play good or bad or indifferent, I’m grateful to be out there on the court.”
As well as the Nets played during LeVert’s absence, they appreciate what it took for him to return and understand how much deeper and better his presence will make them once he gets up to speed. Coming out of training camp, they all were predicting big things for LeVert, and he delivered early in the season.
Even though time is short, veteran forward Ed Davis stressed the need for patience as LeVert and Russell get used to playing with each other again. “You’ve got a guy like ’Vert, who wants the ball in his hands and ‘DLo’ wants the ball in his hands,” Davis said. “It is an adjustment, but they’re two good players and they get along. It will work out.”
Once LeVert and Russell do find their rhythm, the Nets will have to make further adjustments when Spencer Dinwiddie returns from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb. Looking down the road, LeVert said it will be a challenge to keep juggling rotation changes during the playoff push.
“There’s only  games left, but as a team, we haven’t played a lot of games together at full strength,” LeVert said. “I think this last stretch of games will definitely be good for us, especially when Spencer is back. I don’t think it’s a set time. It’s a feel type of thing. We’ve done a good job of adjusting so far.”
In the end, the Nets are trusting their depth to carry them, especially with all the options they have on the perimeter, including not only LeVert, Russell and Dinwiddie but also Joe Harris, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll.
With a smile, Russell said, “It makes Coach’s job easier when he can just put his hand over his eyes and look down and pick anybody because everybody is valuable. It’s just about how we’re going to figure it out when we’re out there.”