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New Jersey Nets: Breaking Down Week 17 and Looking Ahead To The Final Stretch

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New Jersey Nets: Breaking Down Week 17 and Looking Ahead To The Final Stretch
(Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Since the New Jersey Nets played only two games last week, it's hard to break things down too much.

Every game is a learning opportunity for the players and the fans, however, and some teachings were provided in their two contests. There wasn't anything particularly new that we learned, only confirmations of things we already knew.

For that reason, the breakdown will be shorter than usual with less emphasis on statistics. There will be much more of a focus on what the Nets need to do from here in order to deem this a successful season.

First, here's a quick recap:

The Nets went 0-2 on the week, are 17-40 overall, reside in fourth place of the Atlantic Division and are 12th in the Eastern Conference.

So, as said before, this week didn't really tell us anything new. The Nets got beat by two of the league's elite teams in games they actually managed to keep pretty close.

Sure, they lost by double digits, but they trailed the Spurs by just six points very close to the end of the third before Tim Duncan and Co. broke it open and even lead by one against Boston halfway through the fourth.

A better effort early on against Boston could have led to a victory. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Bottom line, those two teams know how to win. The key players have all been together for a number of years and understand how to play with each other.

It's a goal for the Nets to reach for in the future.

Also, the Nets probably could have beaten the Celtics had they started better. Avery Johnson so detested the energy his starting unit brought to the floor that he sat them all on the bench about three minutes into the game.

This team has had a bad habit of starting slow this year, and here's my theory on that.

Devin Harris and Brook Lopez are the leaders on this team. The rest of the starters will take their cues from them. Since those two have been in New Jersey, all they've known is losing. Because the team has been a loser since they've been here, they've generally had their opponents see them as an easy win and, therefore, their foes don't always give 100 percent effort at all times.

Teams feel each other out early in games, and in the past few years there wasn't much urgency on the part of the Nets opponents to start out all that strong being that they knew the team was bad.

This year, however, New Jersey has made it clear that if a very good team overlooks them too much, they can beat them. For this reason, teams are ensuring they get off to hot starts to prevent any type of upset.

Devin Harris and Brook Lopez have grown accustomed to teams looking past them, and that isn't happening so much anymore. (Photo by Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images)

Harris and Lopez, and by association the rest of the starters, are not used to this. They've grown accustomed to sleepy basketball early in games, and teams aren't looking past them anymore. Everyone understands that the Nets can actually beat people this year.

It seems as though the beginnings and endings of games are the real problems for New Jersey. The middle parts have been, for the most part, good, but they haven't been able to get out to the strong start that allows them to bury teams, or close out the tight contests.

Perhaps once they figure how to consistently perform in those two areas the wins will come more frequently.

I'm sure there are some of you who are getting rather sick of my optimism with this team, as even when they're losing big I tend to find some positives. Don't worry, though, I get it. Losing really sucks. When your team is losing this much it sucks even more.

Here's my stance: We all know this team is rebuilding. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov probably made a mistake in guaranteeing the playoffs this year, but he was simply trying to sell some tickets. It's what someone in his position nearly has to do.

Most Nets fans didn't think a postseason berth was at all realistic. Teams don't generally win with the type of roster turnover New Jersey had over the summer.

It's certainly frustrating to see opposing teams celebrate against the Nets so often, but there's really no point in getting too upset about the team losing in a rebuilding year. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

So really, there's no point in getting overly upset with how the team has played this year. Of course there have been some extremely frustrating moments, but there have also been some very fun games and anything is better than last year.

If the Nets are still playing like this next season, then we should all start getting angry. The key for this team is year-by-year improvement.

With that being said, there are still 25 games left on the schedule for the Nets. It's not like they can just say, "Okay, we're done," and look ahead to next October. There are still many games to play.

So what should we look for over these final eight weeks?

First off, there's the potential this team will look drastically different when they resume play.

The Nets don't play again until the day after the trade deadline, and while Carmelo Anthony doesn't seem like a viable option at this time, it's nearly a foregone conclusion that Harris will be gone.

His name came up again in trade rumors last week and I'm really not sure there's any fixing this relationship.

Harris was upset when rumblings first came to the surface over the summer and people close to him have said that he isn't particularly fond of playing for this organization anymore after seeing his name in the paper all year.

This could be one of the last images we'll have of Devin Harris in a Nets uniform. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

I'm a big fan of Devin Harris, but the team hasn't really left itself any option. They either need to deal him now or over the summer, because repairing the damage done by all these rumors could be impossible. I'll have a look at the pros and cons of sending him packing in the next day or two.

Either way, what this team needs to do in the next two months is the same.

For the team as a whole, learning how to close out quarters and games is of the utmost importance. Figuring out how to do so now will put them a step ahead going into next season and could lead them closer to a .500 record in 2012, provided they make the right roster moves.

It would also be nice to see the guys get a little better offensively.

For individuals on the team, it's more about learning things we're unsure of.

For instance, we already know who Kris Humphries and Jordan Farmar are and what they can do. The focus should be more on Brook Lopez, Derrick Favors and, once he comes back, Damion James.

Those are my three main guys here because we need to find out what the team has in them.

Lopez can obviously score. He needs to be able to do so more consistently, though, and he needs to step up his defense and rebounding. It's fine if he doesn't come away with big numbers off the boards, but he must go after the ball more aggressively and he has to be more willing to get his nose dirty on the defensive end.

Derrick Favors needs to start doing stuff like this more often. (Photo by Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images)

Also, if Harris does in fact get traded, that leaves Lopez as the sole team captain. He will have to, have to become a leader. That starts with playing hard at all times and holding yourself, as well as your teammates, accountable.

With Favors, he needs to show that he was really worth the No. 3 overall pick. Avery Johnson has made no attempt to get around the fact that Favors is a project, which he deserves credit for.

The young man does need to start showing more improvement, though. He needs to start knocking down the 15-foot jumper teams are giving him, as it will be a sign that he's been working at his craft. He also needs to provide more consistent effort and energy. He's shown some tremendous flashes of potential when he's really tried his hardest, and all fans and the coaching staff want to see is him do so more often.

And finally, there is James.

Johnson has already said that James will replace Travis Outlaw in the starting lineup when he comes back from his broken foot.

With that being the case, the rookie will need to show whether or not he is a feasible long-term option at the starting small forward spot. If he is, that's a hole filled going into the draft. If not, he can surely still make an impact as a role player off the bench, but the team will need to figure something out at the 3 in the draft or free agency.

How will the Nets fare next week?

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In short, improvement from the team in general and some specific players is what fans should look and hope for. If the Nets can win some games to end the season, perhaps they can carry that good energy into the 2011-12 year and give us more to cheer about.

Things won't start out too easy for New Jersey, as they visit San Antonio (46-10) and Houston (26-31) next week.

If they can play some competitive games and maybe even steal a victory, fans should be happy.

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