“It will be good to get some of our soldiers back.”
Claxton was referencing a couple of Brooklyn’s guards listed as PROBABLE for Friday’s home contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder who, when available, have brought a punch off the bench that the Nets clearly need every bit of. Dennis Smith Jr. has missed 15 games with back issues this season, but his absence in Houston broke a streak of seven straight appearances.
Lonnie Walker IV, on the other hand, has missed 17 straight games after a fiery start to his first season in Brooklyn. Before the left hamstring strain that’s kept him sidelined, Walker averaged 14.6 points in just 21 minutes a night, shooting an eye-popping 46.3% from three. Any team would miss that sort of production, but especially a Nets squad that is dead last in 3-point percentage (32.5%) over their last dozen games, with a record of 2-10.
But Walker says his focus is on the bigger picture, providing energy first and foremost: “We got a lot of great players. It’s a long season, you have your ups and downs, trying to find ways to play the right way. So I think just bringing that energy, trying to really prioritize the defensive side of things and trying to play as hard as I can. And as far as scoring and shooting, obviously adding that to the team, but just trying to play the right way.”
Mikal Bridges looks forward to Walker’s return for the same reasons, saying the Nets have missed “just his presence, in general. I wish we had everybody out there but, you know, it’s just part of the game. Injuries happen, but yeah, just what he does out there, bringing energy and plays well, offensively and defensively.”
Walker is no stranger to the ups and downs of an 82-game marathon; the 25-year-old is in his sixth NBA season and has missed time due to injury before. Just last season, with the Los Angeles Lakers, Walker started 32 games before a left knee injury in December sidelined him for nearly a month. When he returned, his place in the starting lineup had vanquished. Say hello to Austin Reaves.
And while episodes like that have taught the high-flying guard a lesson or two, experience isn’t a panacea: “It don’t get easier. Especially when you love the game so much. I’ve been playing this game since I came out the womb, so to have it taken away from me kind of hurts. But I think most importantly, you’re allowed to – you’re given the time to help everything out. Even if it’s: OK, you got a hamstring injury, and you had a knickknack injury elsewhere, it’s a blessing in disguise to kind of be recouped or recovered and kind of be prepared down the stretch of the season.”
Remember, Walker mentioned his left knee being in “a lot of pain” in the weeks leading up to his hamstring injury. Whether the two maladies are related or not, perhaps some time off killed two birds with one stone:
Lonnie Walker said he's been playing through significant knee pain since Brooklyn's 2nd game and reaggravated it today:— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) November 12, 2023
“My knee has just been sore since game two and in a lot of pain. Just been playing through it for the most part, damn near playing on one leg. Kind of just… pic.twitter.com/B0ySoq9y7V
It’s a tough ask for Walker to return to the lineup after 17 missed games and help the Nets get back in the win column, particularly against a tough OKC team that beat Brooklyn by 16 points just a week ago.
When asked what makes the Thunder such a problematic matchup, Bridges simply pointed to the roster: “It’s the players they have. Ain’t too many players like Shai in the league, his ability to get to the rim, his ability to get to the paint. And then their supporting cast, they have everybody that plays so well off the ball. And they move it to, they find each other. They got a lot of talent there that plays for one another”
Still, Walker’s return to the lineup is a welcome sight. Even if he doesn’t continue shooting the ball like Steph Curry, he can score 20 points off the bench on any given night, certainly capable of easing the load on players like Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Cam Thomas, who have been struggling on offense during this losing stretch.
But by bringing offense, defense, or plain old energy, Walker has one goal in mind: “ I just love to win. This game I’ve been playing all my life, so it’s for sure a different type of aspect or a different type of love that I have for the game. So you’re part of an organization, you got your brothers and your teammates — one leg, no legs, no matter. You’re gonna try and be on that court giving your all if there’s an opportunity to play. So I’m just happy to be back. I’m blessed to be back. I’m just ready to go through war with my teammates.
Tip-off against the Thunder is set for 7:30 p.m. ET from the Barclays Center on Friday night.