The season’s first matchup between the Nets and Knicks went Brooklyn’s way, but the Nets will look a little bit different when they host their intra-city rivals at Barclays Center once again tonight.
Center Brook Lopez will sit out tonight’s game for Brooklyn, the sixth straight game he’s missed since spraining his foot in the Nets’ Nov. 28 win at Boston. Andray Blatche will once again get the nod in Lopez’s place, and both Nets GM Billy King telling reporters at this morning’s shootaround that Lopez is all but out for the second half of their back-to-back.
"We don't want to rush him; we want him to be 100 percent confident when he goes on the court,” King said of Lopez, who took part in a 5-on-5 practice Monday but hasn’t gone further. “There's nothing wrong with his foot MRI-wise; it's just him getting ready to play in an NBA game. It's a long season and we want to get him back where he's the best to play."
Coach Avery Johnson confirmed in his pre-game press conference that Lopez would indeed be out both tonight and tomorrow – saying he would stay in Brooklyn for treatment instead of going with the team to Toronto – and while Blatche has averaged 17.2 points and 9.8 rebounds while starting the last five games , Johnson knows the team will need to pick up the slack defensively somewhere.
“In a lot of games, Brook has been our best players, and our most consistent player, so not having him in the lineup, with the blocked shots and helping us at the basket, we’re going to need to be better defensively,” Johnson said. “Brook’s not going to be there for us when we gamble defensively.”
In addition to Blatche starting for Lopez, Reggie Evans will once again start at the power forward spot for the Nets, relegating Kris Humphries to a reserve role. Avery Johnson first made this change in the lineup for Sunday’s game against Milwaukee, although both men played roughly equal minutes, and Johnson hopes that moving Humphries around will help assuage the struggles the second unit has undergone since Blatche moved into the starting lineup.
“Look at our defensive numbers; sure, Blatche has played pretty good offensively, but you’re going from a guy (in Lopez) who blocked a lot of shots, and we’re not getting those blocks to correct a lot of mistakes,” Johnson said. “And with Brook, it’s the blocked shot attempts that have an affect on opponents. A lot of times, when a starter is being replaced, you can’t just look at his numbers; you have to look at team numbers…and Lopez helps slow our team down when we get into a helter-skelter mode, so we have to figure that out.”
The Knicks are also banged up in the frontcourt, as both Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace are dealing with left foot issues; Wallace is probable for tonight with Camby questionable, but New York will have Jason Kidd, who missed the first meeting between the two teams with back spasms, in the starting lineup.
“Jason is a terrific passer, he understands where the ball should be offensively, and he’s a good ballhandler,” Johnson said. “Defensively, he’s very crafty, and he has a lot of experience, so he knows where a lot of teams’ strengths are defensively.”
Kidd will be part of a smaller Knicks starting five with Raymond Felton, Ronnie Brewer, and Carmelo Anthony in front of Tyson Chandler, and Avery Johnson reiterated an old mantra in explaining how the Nets would deal with a small lineup.
“Like I’ve said all along, Brewer in our mind is the four, and Carmelo is the three,” Johnson joked. “But for us, we need to play at our pace offensively and take care of the basketball. There are times when they’re really, really, really small, but we have a lot of versatility with our roster, so you’ll see Humphries or Reggie playing some center for us, because they try to put you in a bind with the way they spread the floor.”
Hopefully, all of that will help the Nets get back on track, as they are mired in a four-game losing streak that has seen them drop their last three at home, including Sunday’s 97-88 loss to Milwaukee that saw them trail by as many as 29.
Brooklyn is 4-0 against the Atlantic Division this year, and they hope to continue what is their best star against the division since a franchise-best 6-0 run in 2003-04 by ending their four-game homestand with a win.
“It’s going to be a dogfight, literally, in this division all year,” Johnson said. “Right now, we haven’t been so good in our last four games, and we need to find a way to snap out of it; It’s going to be an electrifying and energetic night, and it’s always good to leave home with a win, so this would be a great night to do it.”
Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES