By Steve Lichtenstein
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"Who turned on the lights?"
Brooklyn's grizzled coach Lionel Hollins wasn't being grumpy on Wednesday night; it's just that he didn't know the source or the timeline behind whatever or whoever clicked the switch that has energized his basketball team, leaving him "humbled."
The Nets had just defeated the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors, 109-93, in Toronto for their second consecutive win over a legitimate playoff team. Were the Nets—the subject of multiple trade rumors involving their trio of max-contract former All Stars--now ready to make a serious push for the postseason?
Hollins, to some fans' frustration, usually glosses over outcomes in his postgame analyses. Oh, he hasn't been shy about laying the wood on those whose effort did not meet expectations. But throughout the Nets' ups and downs (mostly downs) this season, it seemed more important to Hollins how the Nets played, not whether they won or lost. And certainly not who they played.
So, for as much as I have battered this club all season for both its wretched roster construction and uninspiring play, it wouldn't be overblowing things if Hollins took a little kudos for their recent performances.
Hollins did say that he saw signs of life during the Nets' victory in Sacramento two weeks ago. Of course, the Nets followed that up with two of their ugliest games of the season, losing to the Clippers and the Jazz by a combined 74 points.
Maybe the snowstorm that postponed the Portland game on January 26 was the catalyst, as it allowed the Nets to rest, heal, and make necessary tweaks.
They've certainly been a different team in the small sample size since.
Though the Nets came up short in Hot-lanta and in a home overtime loss to the Raptors, there were positive signs. The return of point guard Deron Williams from fractured rib cartilage prior to Monday's insane comeback win over the Clippers on Monday was the final galvanizing piece.
The ball moves with more precision and purpose when Williams is on the floor--Jarrett Jack played his heart out in overextended minutes running the show during D-Will's 13-game (counting the four-minute cameo versus Boston) absence, but he had a tendency to look for his own shot off the dribble in situations that called for more distribution.
The offense, which struggled to keep pace with even the weakest teams throughout January, broke through the 100-point barrier in each of their last four games. The Nets were the third-worst three-point shooting team in the league prior to this stretch, connecting at a woeful 31.7 percent clip. Their efficiency since the postponement improved to 38.2 percent, including a 9-for-19 outing in Toronto.
Hollins deserves credit for (belatedly) giving Alan Anderson a chance in the starting five. I've always felt that the much-maligned Anderson fits this role better than either Bojan Bogdanovich or Sergey Karasev as Anderson is the Nets best wing defender (though that's not really much of a compliment).
Anderson has rewarded Hollins' faith by averaging a little over 13 points over the past four games on 53 percent shooting from the floor and 42 percent from behind the three-point line. Anderson scored seven crucial points in the final two minutes to help the Nets gain revenge on the Clippers—his four-point play with 15 seconds left (and Jack's game-winning jumper with one second remaining) may have saved this season.
Anderson followed that up with a 22-point night on only nine field goal attempts in his old stomping grounds. Equally impressive was Anderson and Joe Johnson combining to hold Raptors star guard DeMar DeRozan to a quiet (until he was ejected for his cheap shoulder shot into Bogdanovich in the closing minutes) 13 points.
Bogdanovich, who misfired on 17 of his first 19 three-point attempts in January, has in turn settled into his bench role. He connected on a couple of key bombs early in the fourth quarter on Wednesday that turned a tight game into a rout.
Even Hollins admitted that Wednesday's performance meant a little more considering the venue. What Nets fan didn't appreciate Drake walking out of that arena with his head down after a game where Toronto's Oscar-worthy flopper—point guard Kyle Lowry--was held scoreless in the second half? It wasn't Game 7 of the 2014 Conference quarterfinals, but it might have been the most satisfying win since.
Unfortunately, all of this recent good work can be undone in a weekend. These are, after all, the Brooklyn Nets. At 20-28 and in ninth place in the ultra-weak Eastern Conference, the Nets have little margin for error.
A loss to the last-place Knicks on Friday at Barclays Center would be a ginormous error. That's the Nets' last home game until March 2 when Golden State comes to town. In between, the Nets will be travelling to face eight opponents, five of which are over .500.
Prior to this week, the Nets were 3-20 against such teams. I would rate half of those defeats as noncompetitive.
The Nets can ill afford an injury to one of their headliners, meaning Williams or Johnson. Not with Darius Morris as the only available point guard after Jack and Johnson the only Net who commands a double team.
Up front, center Brook Lopez has been feast-or-famine off the bench, forward Kevin Garnett shoots better from 17 feet than he does from 7 feet, three-point marksman Mirza Teletovic is out for the season, and center Mason Plumlee came close to out-bricking Los Angeles' DeAndre Jordan from the free throw line on Monday.
So yes, there are plenty of potential pitfalls. The Nets may have turned a corner, but it also wouldn't shock me if they crashed into the next lamp post around the bend.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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