By Al Iannazzone
HOUSTON Lawrence Frank told some of his seldom-used backups to be ready to come in and contribute. They'd heard it before, but the subs knew the Nets' coach meant it this time.
So much was written and said lately about Frank overplaying his starters, not trusting his bench and the reserves not producing when their chance came. For one night, at least, all of that changed.
Frank, knowing the importance of limiting the minutes of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson in order to keep them fresh for the playoffs, had four subs in the game in the first quarter of Sunday's win over the Hornets. One, Zoran Planinic, had been out of the regular rotation since December and took advantage of his rare chance for meaningful minutes.
Ninety seconds after entering, Planinic drove through the lane and threw down a two-handed dunk. For the 13 minutes he was on the floor, Planinic played aggressively instead of thinking or worrying about being pulled if he made a mistake.
"I was on the bench so long it didn't matter anymore," Planinic said before the Nets faced the Rockets on Monday at the Toyota Center. "I didn't think [about being taken out]. I just tried to go out and play.
"Coach told me just to stay ready. We had to change something because we lost the last couple of games. I was just practicing and waiting for my call. But I'm just happy because we won. That's the main thing."
Frank has been under scrutiny for underplaying the bench. Team president Rod Thorn denied a published report that Frank was on the hot seat for not going to his reserves more. Thorn also was willing to take the heat for the bench's poor play.
Naturally, though, to end the season strong and go far in the playoffs, the Nets will need their bench to play well. Planinic's season-high 11-point performance begs the questions: Why isn't he used more and can he do it every night?
It remains to be seen about the latter. The former is mostly because of Planinic's defense. Frank primarily looks for defense from his subs, which is why Cliff Robinson and Jacque Vaughn have gotten the most consistent minutes.
Rookie Antoine Wright is trying hard defensively. He's been a part of the rotation for the past 20 games. But most of the other players management brought in last off-season shooters and scorers to help when the Nets go through scoring lulls and to let the Big Three rest more have been used inconsistently.
Marc Jackson wasn't playing before being traded to the Hornets. Jeff McInnis, sidelined since mid-January following knee surgery, wasn't playing much before getting hurt.
Among the other reserves, Lamond Murray has been used sparingly since missing three games with a knee injury in late January, and Scott Padgett, whose shot has been off, has played fewer minutes lately and was benched the prior two games before Monday.
Frank's message to all of them is to be ready.
"We're in a tough spot," he said. "We've got to win games, but we also got to get guys rest. It's showing great faith in the whole team, and that's up to me and guys delivering once faith is bestowed."
Planinic did that, and his timing couldn't have been better.
Nets' officials have faith in the versatile Croatian, otherwise they wouldn't have picked up his option for 2006-07 earlier this season.
He just hasn't always been able to reward their faith because of his limited play. Planinic was benched 26 times this season prior to Sunday's game.
"Not to be a smart [aleck], but he has to be on the court to [play] like that," said Jefferson, one of Planinic's staunchest supporters.
"Zoran, it's a blessing and a curse to play behind J-Kidd and Vince Carter. You have to admit, it's tough to match those guys in the way they play. But that doesn't mean [Planinic's] not a very capable player."
Frank may find he has some more capable reserves ready to come in and contribute now that he's ready to call on them.