The Brooklyn Nets need a boost. At 21-31, they’re looking up at the Play-In Tournament, chilling in the Eastern Conference’s 11-seed with two-and-a-half games of breathing room in both directions.
The path ahead does not look any less bumpy. In the five weeks immediately after the All-Star break, Brooklyn plays 19 games, 14 of them on the road. And before we can get there, the Nets have a home-and-home back-to-back with the best team in the league, the Boston Celtics.
But reinforcements have arrived for Brooklyn, and more are on the way. Dennis Schröder, acquired from the Toronto Raptors, had the Barclays Center chanting his name by the end of his Nets debut on Saturday...
“DENNIS SCHRODER” chants at Barclays Center. pic.twitter.com/eZMIrzvAjE— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) February 11, 2024
In that comfortable victory over the San Antonio Spurs, Dorian Finney-Smith returned after six consecutive absences with a sprained left ankle. So too did Lonnie Walker IV after missing a couple contests with a balky left hamstring.
The trend is set to continue. The glass-eating Day’Ron Sharpe will play on Tuesday night against the Celtics, ending his streak of 15 straight absences with a left knee hyperextension.
“I ain’t think I would be out this long. But you know, it could have been worse, God forbid.”
Sharpe handled his time away from the court exactly how you’d expect the relentless rebounder to: “I’m trying to tell you, I’ve been fiending man. Every day I’m watching the game, I’m like, trying to jump to the TV, get on the floor type thing. You know, just happy to be back.”
We typically consider spark-plugs off the bench as players that come in and score the rock, but if the attitude Sharpe takes onto the court doesn’t spark a team, we can retire the term altogether.
Better yet, his return gives the incoming Schröder another big man to run pick-and-roll with. In the German’s stellar debut, he showcased his knack for not just throwing lob, but making all types of interior passes...
You think Schröder is gonna get annihilated at the rim here, but then he makes a beautiful dump-off pass for a huge Claxton dunk ... and a weird fall: pic.twitter.com/y2B2ei1XkC— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 11, 2024
There’s a reason Nic Claxton put up 20 points on Saturday, flying far higher above the rim than the 7’4” Victor Wembanyama. After the game, Claxton dismissed the notion that building such pick-and-roll chemistry is a slow-burn: “I think it just depends, but end of the day, pick-and-roll is universal. And I’ve also been in the league for a while, played with some really good guards. So I know when to slip out. I’m also ready in the pocket and I’m also really good at catching lobs.”
At Brooklyn’s practice on Monday, Sharpe echoed that sentiment, referencing the other Dennis, who’s been his foremost partner in crime this season. “That’s how I feel too. I just feel like he gives me the same vibe that Dennis Smith [Jr.] gives me. Play hard, make the right play, try to win.”
Winning attitude aside, it’s no surprise that Sharpe is looking forward to playing with another guard that can stuff his pockets. After all “when bigs know they’re going to get the basketball, they’ll roll,” said Jacque Vaughn with a smile. “They’ll be ready to catch it.”
Really, it was all smiles at Nets practice, rare for a team ten games under .500, but not one welcoming true difference-makers into the fold. Sharpe and Lonnie Walker IV joked about the Super Bowl, particularly when Sharpe admitted his lack of familiarity with Usher’s catalogue.
“Because he’s like 12 years old,” said Walker. “He knows baby shark.”
Perhaps Walker was in a jovial mood since the Nets added two of his former teammates at the deadline. He played with Schröder on the Los Angeles Laker last season, and with Keita Bates-Diop the prior two seasons in San Antonio: “There’s nothing like getting back together with your friends, people you consistently talk to and share memories and bonds with. I can’t complain. God is good.”
Will these good vibes be powerful enough to at least get a split with the mighty Celtics, currently sporting the league’s best regular-season net rating since 2017 Golden State Warriors? That remains to be seen. Climbing out of the 11-seed and, by way of play-in maneuvering, into the NBA playoffs may be a more feasible goal.
“I think everyone’s point of focus is making it to the playoffs,” said Walker. “I think, from the top down, we all want to be in that environment. It just continues to grow. I think day-to-day we’re trying to capitalize on as much as we can, whether it’s practice, off court, getting conditioning in, lifting. Whatever it might be, I think everyone’s doing their due diligence to be mentally and physically prepared for every single game coming up.”
Well, they better be. It’s go time.
Cam Johnson eyes return
Cam Johnson has been ruled out for the first half of Brooklyn’s back-to-back against Boston, but the Nets will soon add him back into the fold as well. The 27-year-old wing was playing full-court five-on-five with the “stay ready’ group,” a mix of lower-usage players and coaches, at practice Monday.
“We’ll see how he comes out of that tomorrow and just move on from there, but positive steps that he is doing stay ready today,” said Vaughn.
Brooklyn may keep him out of the lineup until they return from the All-Star break, as they travel to Toronto on February 22. It would give Johnson — who’s had an uncomfortable start to the season with frequent upper-leg issues and cramping — a nice chunk of rest while affording more minutes to rookie Jalen Wilson, among others.