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As Nets Starters Struggle to Find Rhythm, Reserves Hardly Miss a Beat

by John Eligon
New York Times

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 26 — Rod Thorn, the Nets' president, may have reason to scratch his head.

Thorn has kept together a starting lineup that statistically was one of the best in the league last season and has focused on retooling the Nets' un¬productive bench. The result has been evident: In almost every game this season, at least one player from the bench has raised his game.

The reserves went a long way in proving their mettle Friday when five of them nearly led the Nets back from a 19-point deficit in the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns. The rally fell short, but the Nets finding themselves in such a hole in the first place perhaps highlights the quandary that Thorn did not expect: This season, his starters appear to be the ones struggling to find a rhythm.

During the four-game losing streak the Nets (5-7) had entering Sunday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, their starters have fell behind early (against the Port¬land Trail Blazers on Nov. 18 and the Suns on Friday) or failed to execute in the clutch (against the SuperSonics on Monday and the Trail Blazers on Wednesday).

"Our bench has scored much bet¬ter and been more productive over all," Thorn said Saturday. "We ha¬ven't played as a unit as well with our starters as we did over the course of last year."

As evidence, Thorn pointed to a new statistic the N.B.A. is tracking. Last season, when the Nets' starters — Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter, Nenad Krstic and Jason Collins — were on the court, they outscored opposing teams by 278 points. That was second in the league.

This season, the Nets' starters are not even among the top 50 five-man units in that category.

That statistic does not tell the whole story — it does not reflect how often the Nets' starters are on the court together. And it may be too early in the season to have an accurate picture.

Still, Thorn seems to view the sta¬tistic as part of a larger issue involving his team's struggles. Whether overcoming those struggles will require roster moves remains to be seen. "I never say we won't do some¬thing because you never know when something may come around that then you have to take a look at it. Right now, there's nothing on the horizon."

Kidd, the Nets' captain, said of the starters: "We need to set a tone. The games that we've won, we've set a tone. The games we've lost, we haven't been there. There's no in be¬tween."

Kidd, who scored a season-high 35 points when the Nets defeated the Lakers here last season, also said that the Nets could not put all the onus on one unit.

Like several other members of the Nets' organization, Kidd has pointed to a lack of focus and execution, especially on defense, as a reason for the Nets' slow start.

Yet no one seems to have an explanation why the team has lacked mental fortitude at times. It would seem surprising that the Nets had not learned from last season's 9-12 start. But Coach Lawrence Frank said this season's slow start felt a bit different.

"When we were 9-12 last year, we really hadn't played any good basketball." he said. "This year, we've played some good basketball.

"I think we came with the right intent coming on the road. We played well for 40 minutes one game, 44 minutes another game. We just didn't win the game."

Other positives Frank pointed to were road victories against the Washington Wizards and the Indiana against the Utah Jazz (12-2), which has gone 8-1 since then.

Frank said he was not panicking about the early-season struggles.

"If we had a younger team, I'd be a little more concerned," he said. "The core of our team, our veteran guys who've been through the trials of the N.B.A., I really, really like our character. So we're going to find our way out of it."

Thorn also has confidence in his team. But his concerns are no secret.

"Any time you lose four in a row, you always worry," he said. "I think we just need to get a little tougher mentally out there and close some of these games out."

REBOUNDS
The Nets said yesterday that forward Clifford Robinson would have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Monday. The 6-foot-l0-inch Robinson, who will be 40 next month, is averaging 5.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in seven games this season. He has not played since Nov. 18 and continues to have swelling in the knee. The Nets did not indicate when Robinson might return to the team