Even without their starting center, the New Jersey Nets are feeling optimistic about the future given their solid recent play heading into their game Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Nets (20-37) are all but assured of not making the playoffs and barely mathematically alive heading into this contest. Yet, they are playing possibly their best basketball of this compressed season, having won five of eight games following their 110-98 victory Friday over Washington as they shot a season-high 56.3 percent.
"We have been pretty good in this little stretch since the Utah game (105-84 loss March 26)," Nets coach Avery Johnson said.
Deron Williams shook off the flu to have 19 points and 13 assists for his fifth double-double in seven games Friday.
The star point guard thinks the Nets would be even better with a healthy Brook Lopez, who was shut down for the season Friday. Lopez appeared in just five games due to ankle and foot injuries, averaging 19.2 points, after not missing one last season while scoring a team-high 20.4 per game.
"We'd be a playoff team," Williams said when asked about the impact of Lopez's absence. "He is one of our best players, a 7-footer who can score from anywhere, commands lot of attention, double teams and knows how to play the game."
While Lopez has been a spectator most of the season, Williams' supporting cast appears to be finding its groove. Gerald Wallace has averaged 15.5 points in 12 games since being acquired from Portland, Kris Humphries has averaged 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds in the past five and reserve Anthony Morrow has scored 17.3 per game over the last four.
While the Cavaliers (18-35) also are building for the future, the present doesn't include No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving. He missed his second straight game - Cleveland's 84-80 win Friday over Toronto that snapped a 10-game losing streak - due to a sprained shoulder and will not play this game as the Cavaliers monitor his progress.
Lester Hudson has been trying to make the most of his opportunity with Irving and fellow guard Anthony Parker sidelined. He finished with career highs of 23 points and seven assists Friday in a bid to get another 10-day contract from the team since his current one expires after this game.
Hudson hit a pair of game-clinching free throws with four seconds to play.
"The 10 day is almost up so I said to myself, 'If you want to stay, you've got to make these,'" Hudson said. "'Do not worry about the crowd. If you want to stay, you make these.' I made them, so hopefully I can stay."
Hudson will likely get extensive minutes again since Parker is not expected to play due to a bruised sternum, and could get his first career start after Manny Harris went 1 for 8 in a starting role.
"Each day with Lester right now he seems to get a little more comfortable in his role with the team," coach Byron Scott said. "I thought he played great."
Cleveland has won two of three between the teams, including a 105-100 victory at New Jersey in the most recent meeting March 19 as rookie Tristan Thompson had a season-high 27 points and 12 rebounds.