Nets creep closer to playoff spot

carter341_030809.jpgEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Nets avoided two scares Sunday night, one involving the game and the other their most important player.
 
In the fourth quarter of a tied game, Vince Carter was down and potentially out after banging knees with Knicks forward Danilo Gallinari. Carter got up, eventually returned and finished the game and the Nets pulled out the narrow 106-101 win.
 
Carter ended up with 25 points but wasn’t himself the last 3:55. Still, he was out there, serving as a decoy at the very least, and the Nets’ defense carried them to the win that was a must considering what the team has been through and what they have upcoming.
 
The Nets played this same type of game four times last week, one that came down to closing seconds. The Nets lost three of them, albeit it against much better caliber of teams.
 
But, on Sunday night, the Nets made sure they didn’t need a last-second shot to tie the game or win it. Their defense made sure of it.
 
Three times in the last 1:18, the Nets came up with a steal, and were fortunate New York missed a pair of game-tying threes with under 30 seconds left.
 
Had the Knicks made one, it would have been interesting to see how the Nets responded, especially after the week they had and how Carter was feeling.
 
It never came to that, though. After the two misses, the Nets got the rebound, Devin Harris was fouled and made two foul shots, and then Trenton Hassell made a steal.
 
“I thought we made some big defensive plays when we needed to,” coach Lawrence Frank said.
 
It’s not something Frank or any other Net has said much this season, and certainly not last week when defensive execution was a big reason for the three losses to the Hornets, Celtics and Magic by a total of 10 points.
 
The offense played a part, especially in the Hornets’ game when the Nets committed two bad turnovers and Harris took his eye off the ball forcing him to take a tougher three. It also played a part with the shot selection in the Magic loss.
 
But, overall, the defense let the Nets down last week, whether it be on the perimeter or inside leading to offensive rebounds. It nearly happened with the David Lee back-tap, but when Larry Hughes didn’t convert you knew it was the Nets’ night.
 
“We haven’t always played perfect at the end, but tonight it was our turn,” Harris said after his 35-point, 10-assist night. “We controlled the offensive end. We got good shots at the basket. We got stops when we needed to. All the things that have been going wrong for us the last couple of games, we got over the hump with that tonight.”
 
Perfect timing.
 
Imagine had the Nets gone West with three straight losses, three in the waning moments, and four-in-five. They would have fallen into a tie for 11th with the Indiana Pacers, just one-half game ahead of the 13th-place Knicks.
 
No the playoffs wouldn’t have been out of the question, but it wouldn’t have looked good. They have a brutal schedule even after these four out West — against the Warriors, Blazers, Clippers and Nuggets. The Nets also play the Cavs twice and the Celtics, Lakers and Magic once.
 
This win doesn’t mean the Nets are in the playoffs either. It could just be a stay of execution. But they’re only one-game behind Chicago with 19 left. The Nets are in better shape because they didn’t lose the game or Carter last night.
 
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).

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