The Nets played it cautious with Joe Johnson, and then they realized how much they missed their clutch performer.
Juggling the shooting guard’s health for the postseason and the importance of home-court advantage in the first round seemed to reach a critical point after Saturday night’s loss to the Jazz, when both P.J. Carlesimo and Deron Williams uttered the same words, unprompted by each other: “We need Joe.”
“I don’t want to demean the guys that are playing,” Carlesimo said. “But the longer we go without Joe, we’re not so good that we can play without Joe for a long time. . . . Joe changes our dynamic a little bit, a healthy Joe. But we need Joe healthy. We’re stretching some guys minutes. We’re putting some guys in some circumstances that hopefully they won’t be in going forward. We’re stretching guys minutes out. They're playing against front-line guys. A lot of things are different right now and it's hard to overcome that."
For the first time in a week, Johnson provided a target date Saturday for his return from a sore heel that everybody agrees has hindered his game since the pain popped up in late February. After missing four straight games — and eight overall — the shooting guard said he’s pushing for Wednesday in Cleveland, but the combination of two straight losses and the Knicks’ resurgence has left the Atlantic Division title just a remote possibility.
The Nets (42-31), who have been starting Keith Bogans and giving more time to MarShon Brooks, are trying to hold onto the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting 1 1/2 games above Chicago and Atlanta for the fourth spot. With nine games remaining, it’s possible they can climb as high as No. 2 or fall as far as No. 8.
That's what's at stake in the final two weeks.
“I don’t want this thing to linger,” Johnson said. “But we’re making progress. (Saturday) is probably the best it felt since right before the All-Star break, honestly.
“I’m able to cut and kinda get up and down the floor and kinda be pain-free, to an extent. . . . We’ll see how it feels after workouts.”