Long Island Nets toughen up to face new-look Westchester Knicks
G League's top team has won twice against Nets, but top players are in NBA
After winning five out of six games to firm up some playoff positioning, the Long Island Nets have dropped back-to-back games at home against the Windy City Bulls, leaving them 23-19 and one game out of the sixth and final NBA G League Eastern Conference playoff spot.
The seventh-place Lakeland Magic still sit 2.5 games behind the Nets, but after a sub-par defensive effort on Friday and some late fourth-quarter failures on Sunday, coach Ronald Nored went back to basics with a hard-edged practice on Monday afternoon.
The Nets are heading into a home-and-home set against the Westchester Knicks, hosting the Knicks on Tuesday night at NYCB LIVE, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and then going up to Westchester on Thursday.
"We train pretty hard regularly, but we had a lot of games here in a row, with a day in between," said Nored. "I think we needed one. I think we needed to come in there and get better and go hard today. It's probably longer than I wanted it to be. But I think we got out of it exactly what we needed. The hope is that it translates, starting tomorrow, but then the next eight games. Because we need it."
KENDALL GRAY MOVES UP
The Nets have been without forward Akil Mitchell since Feb. 10, and lost guard Tahjere McCall to wrist surgery for the season. McCall last played on Feb. 23.
"To me, they're our best two individual defenders," said Nored. "Both of those guys have been playing really good basketball. To lose those guys hurts us, it does."
They also recently got back big man Prince Ibeh, who on Friday, March 2 played his first game since Jan. 2 after suffering a thumb injury, but did not play on Sunday.
Forward Kendall Gray has stepped in to the void a bit. Nored called out his play against Windy City on Friday, when he had three successive rebound baskets in the third quarter and finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. In the fourth quarter on Sunday, Gray scored back-to-back baskets as part of a 12-4 run that opened the quarter and gave Long Island an 83-78 lead.
"I wouldn't say (my minutes are) going up, but my name is called a lot earlier," said Gray. "It's just being ready when your time is called and having an impact while you're out there."
The son of two Air Force service members, Gray moved around a bit as a kid before settling in Delaware, staying local to star at Delaware State. He was named MEAC Player of the Year as a senior in 2015.
After playing in Germany and then Poland, Gray stayed in the U.S. this season to play for the Nets in the G League. He's averaging 4.6 points and 4.2 rebounds and shooting 57.9 percent from the field in 12.8 minutes per game. He's averaging 16 minutes per game in Long Island's last seven.
"I feel great," said Gray. "I'm healthy. That was my biggest thing coming in, just remaining healthy. My game is improving. My mental is improving. I'm in a good spot right now, just because I'm able to play the game of basketball. Thankful for coach Ron and the Brooklyn Nets organization for giving me the opportunity.'
COUNTING ON KAMARI
Starting center Kamari Murphy has played in 42 of 43 games, leading the Long Island Nets in games played this season. He's second on the team in rebounding with 7.3 per game, although leader James Webb III (7.5) has played just 11 games with the Nets. He's also averaging 10.4 points per game.
He's topped 20 points in two of Long Island's last three games, with 20 against the Raptors last Wednesday, shooting 10 of 12 from the field. Against Windy City on Sunday, Murphy finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds. With the game tied at 88, he scored what turned out to be Brooklyn's last eight points of the game, taking advantage of the Bulls on pick and rolls with Milton Doyle.
Murphy's free throw with 50.7 seconds tied the game before the Bulls held on for a 103-96 win.
"I thought Kamari was pretty good at the end, setting picks and rolling," said Nored. "Those guys fouled him on his roles. Milton especially, where he may not have been able to come out for the score, he was finding, it was Murph most of the time on roles. But it really helps when those guys are going."
AGAINST THE KNICKS
The Nets have lost both of their games against the Knicks this season, 104-92 at home on Dec. 29 and 98-90 in Westchester on Jan. 17. But most of the names that did damage for Westchester in those wins are gone.
Trey Burke has been signed to an NBA contract with the Knicks. Rookie Damyean Dotson was on assignment from the Knicks. Luke Kornet and Isaiah Hicks are two-way contract players currently with the parent club on a road trip and not expected to play. Xavier Rathan-Mayes has been signed to a 10-day contract with Toronto.
And after running through a film session and scouting report with the team, Nored and his coaching staff returned to their office to discover that Nigel Hayes had signed a 10-day contract with Memphis.
"So they're a completely different team," said Nored. "It's scary. We've been in this situation before. We were in this situation with Maine. Maine's five best players, starters, were all out, we went up there and got beat. We were in this situation last game before the All-Star break. We didn't get beat, but the five starters were gone for Wisconsin and we had a big lead and relaxed, and we won by six.
"That's the scary part. They've got a couple guys on their team that have gotten a lot better this year since we played them in preseason October 30th or something. There are guys that have really improved since then. They're going to get their opportunity, and they're going to want to prove something."