New Jersey Nets: Bench Play Has Lifted Team, Turned Season Around

Ryan ComstockCorrespondent IFebruary 1, 2011

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The New Jersey Nets have won five of their last eight games, a stretch that has seen the team go 5-1 on their home court.

At first glance, it's easy to look at the box score, see the production of Devin Harris and Brook Lopez, and assume they are carrying the team, dragging their teammates to victory.

That's not really the case, though, which is not meant in any way to diminish what the team's co-captains have done.

Indeed, both players have dramatically stepped up their games in recent times. Since being benched in the fourth quarter against Phoenix three weeks ago, Lopez is scoring at an elite level—putting in 24.7 PPG while shooting 56 percent from the field in his last 11 games.

Harris, too, has been running the point at a rate that is on par with the best in the league. During this eight-game span that has seen the Nets win games more consistently than they have in quite some time, Harris is averaging 11.3 APG and just set a career-high in assists against Denver with 18.

That came just two days after he totaled 16 dimes against Milwaukee.

It's safe to say the increased production of New Jersey's stars has helped to propel the team to their latest wins and has erased the memory of the abysmal 2009-10 season.

The team's second unit and role players deserve some love as well, however.

During the time frame mentioned at the top, New Jersey's bench players are outscoring their opponent's backups by an average of 40 PPG to 24. They are hitting 49 percent of their shots and even outscored the Nets starters 56-37 against Memphis last week—a game the team won, by the way.

At the forefront of this tear are Kris Humprhies and Anthony Morrow, who began the season as starters.

Humphries gave up his starting spot to rookie Derrick Favors in hopes of allowing the 19-year old to develop. Still, he has a team-high 14 double-doubles this season and during these last eight games is nearly averaging one, with nine PPG and 9.1 RPG.

He's rebonded nicely from a tough few games where it appeared the bottom was about to drop out from under him by totaling 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting Monday night.

Morrow lost his spot in the starting five because of a hamstring injury that sidelined him for 17 games. Since returning and being used as a reserve, he's scoring 12.6 PPG while shooting 56 percent from the field. He's also hitting a mind-boggling 54 percent of his threes.

Another player who was turned out to be far better and far more valuable than anyone foresaw when he was signed this offseason is Jordan Farmar.

The former Laker has missed the last three games with a back injury, but in the five games prior averaged 7.6 PPG and 5.6 APG.

Great numbers? No, but very good, especially when considering he's had at least seven assists in three of those contests while showing a knack for hitting big three-pointers when the team needs them.

The bench also went into a noticeable lull in its first two games without his services before figuring out what to do against Denver on Monday—namely having Morrow and Sasha Vujacic take over the ball-handling duties in his absence.

And, oh yeah, that guy Vujacic. Although he's proven to be streaky with his shot, he's still averaging just under 10 PPG in the last eight and is nailing 50 percent of his three-point attempts.

Even Johan Petro, who sees less minutes than any of these other guys, has shown the ability to hit mid-range shots at a decent, though uninspiring, rate.

It's one of the more endearing aspects of this group of players. Everyone on the team is willing to contribute in whatever capacity coach Avery Johnson asks them to.

The squad is more tight-knit than any of those in recent Nets history, and the front-office has made sure to dispatch those players, like Terrence Williams, who do not fit in with that team mentality.

Johnson has said every player on the roster is extremely coachable, which makes his job that much easier.

He's also found a way to get serviceable production from undrafted rookie Ben Uzoh, whom he forced into the rotation when Farmar was unable to go. Uzoh looked in over his head against Indiana and Milwaukee last week, which isn't his fault. The Nets never intended for him to be in this position so quickly.

Against the Nuggets Monday night, though, Uzoh seemed to suddenly remember that the trick for any NBA player is to never forget that they're in the league for a reason.

If he didn't know how to play basketball he wouldn't be on a roster, and he was noticeably more confident against Denver. He trusted his game and believed in himself, even coming up with a huge play against hardened veteran Chauncey Billups during the spurt in which the Nets put the game away.

Uzoh undoubtedly reminds Johnson of himself.

Both had to fight their way into the league and Johnson, as well as every player on the team, appeared to be very happy for, and proud of, Uzoh when he didn't bite on Billups' patented pump-fake, forcing "Mr. Big Shot" into a turnover.

That's the measure of a true team. No matter how small, every player makes an impact and is ready to do so whenever his name is called.

There's no telling how long the Nets can keep up their hot play. There's certainly no chance of them winning a championship this year and they would have to go on a rather imposing run to make the playoffs.

This is a process, though. It's a journey.

Everyone on the team wants to improve, wants to contribute and wants to get this franchise back on the right track.

As anyone who has played organized sports at any level can tell you, that's at least half the battle.