Moke Hamilton, SNYNets.com
NEW YORK — The P.J Carlesimo era has gotten out to somewhat of a successful start. The Nets have won two consecutive games and it's been so long since that was the case, fans of the team may have forgotten what that felt like.
To be exact, it's been 16 days and eight games. The Nets defeated the Toronto Raptors and the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 12 and Dec. 14, respectively. Defeating the Charlotte Bobcats and Cleveland Cavaliers was important for the team—now 16-14—to stay above .500, but also to re-establish the feeling of winning that has eluded them for what seemed like the entire month of December.
Still, even after the two wins, the Nets are just 5-10 in December.
Collectively, the club hopes that the month of January brings forth some new luck in the new year and they'll get a head start when they visit the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 31.
It's a challenge that everyone discussed after the club's 103-100 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And with a healthy Lopez, it might be one the club can rise to.
In the NBA, you can only play the games on your schedule, so for the win-starved Nets, two victories over two of the NBA's worst teams is not something anyone is in a hurry to give back. "I thought our guys played hard and we played a lot of good minutes," P.J. Carlesimo said after the Nets defeated the Cavaliers on Saturday night. "I felt like we deserved to win the game more than [the Cavaliers] did."
When asked if he felt that the Nets have collectively had a different energy since he took over the team, Carlesimo agreed that they did. "Without question," he said. "They've played more good minutes of this last 96 and we've won two games. So no question, [team team is] in a better place."
Carlesimo won't win any awards for coaching the Nets to two victories over teams whose combined record is just 14-48, but he knew that. "Our goal was to get two wins and get on a plane tomorrow," he said.
And therein lies the challenge.
The Nets have an off day on Sunday and will depart for San Antonio in the evening. They'll play the Spurs on Dec. 31 and then battle the Oklahoma City Thunder in another tough road game on Jan. 2. The three game road trip ends on Jan. 4 when the Nets visit the lowly Washington Wizards.
The Spurs and the Thunder are two of the NBA's elite teams and a victory over either of those teams would do wonders for this team's confidence, especially coming off of a month which has seen a once promising season flounder into mediocrity.
"This will really show a lot of where we're at as far as character, guts and grit," Joe Johnson said. "We're playing two of the top teams in the NBA so we'll gear up for San Antonio and see what we got."
One person who has shown what he's got is Brook Lopez. After missing seven straight games due to a right foot injury, Lopez has shown some of the flashes that made him one of the NBA's more talked about players during the month of November. Lopez returned to action on Dec. 14 and was brought back into the rotation slowly, but over the Nets last three games, he is averaging 27.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. He seems to be regaining his form.
Against the Spurs and the Thunder, though, Lopez will face tough defenders in the Spurs' Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter and the Thunder's Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
Still, the Nets have made some adjustments to Lopez's offensive placement and the success could carry over.
"I think he's moving a little bit better and we're just passing the ball better," coach Carlesimo said. "I think we're getting him the ball closer to the basket… Night and day, he's getting the ball in better position."
Lopez agreed. "No question," he said when asked if he agreed with his coach. "I tried to post deep and I got good looks."
Though Deron Williams was also impressed with Lopez's performance, he understands that the road ahead will get tougher. "These were two games we were supposed to win so now we gotta go and try to win two that most people don't think we can win," Williams said. "We'll have to play better than we did tonight because San Antonio is a tough team, especially in their building and it'll be a tough matchup for us."
Carlesimo shares the sentiment. "The Spurs still aren't missing a beat," he said. "Timmy is still Tim Duncan, Tony is one of the best point guards in the league and they're coached by one of the best coaches in the league." He was similarly complimentary of the Oklahoma City Thunder. "They're a different animal," Carlesimo said. "They've got the two guys who are playing out of their mind in Kevin [Durant] and Russell [Westbrook], but Serge [Ibaka] and their other guys are good, too."
The Spurs and Thunder are a combined 46-14 on the season and are the number three and number two seeded teams in the NBA's tough Western Conference.
Despite their recent struggles and an abrupt coaching change that took many by surprise, a win over either of these NBA elite would do wonders to help raise the collective spirit of the Nets and help turn the page on an utterly forgettable December.
With Lopez regaining his form, the Nets can only hope to revert to the 11-4 team that won Avery Johnson the NBA's Coach of the Month award for November, not the 3-10 club that got him fired.