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But the Nets don't see it that way. They look at their NBA season opener here tonight against the Timberwolves as the start of an opportunity to prove themselves.

While preseason predictions generally equate Nets wins with anticipated CC Sabathia World Series strikeouts (if that many), the Nets insist they're better than that. But it might not translate to victories.

"We just want to outwork guys," said Brook Lopez, the inside hub for the Nets' offense, and the main interior component of the defense.

"We want to be a real scrappy team that other teams don't want to play. No matter what the score of the game is or who the team is, we want to be in the game."

The Nets have been out of the playoffs for two straight years after a run of six postseason appearances in the Jason Kidd Era. Now there is no Kidd, no Vince Carter.

They are in not so much in a rebuilding stage as they are a replanning stage. They have seven expiring contracts. They have visions of the free-agent class of 2010, when the Nets will have more than $22M in cap room and, presumably, a new owner willing to spend it.

But before they can pitch the joys of New Jersey and a move to Brooklyn to LeBron James or Chris Bosh or Amar'e Stoudemire, the Nets have to wade through 2009-10.

They'll do so with Lopez, All-Star point guard Devin Harris and a young collection of wings who hope to make the present palatable.

"We have a chance to sneak up on a lot of people," said Harris, who combines with starters Courtney Lee and Chris Douglas-Roberts as part of the Nets' very young, very quick lineup.

"Sometimes it's almost better to be the underdogs."

Said backup center Josh Boone, the longest tenured Net: "Nobody expects us to do anything at all this year. We want to go out and prove, not just to everybody else, but to ourselves, we're a lot better than people think we are. We already know it. We just have to go out and do it."

The Nets , who have lost six straight times here, went through a 1-6 pre-season, winning their finale through their Lopez and the Four Water Bugs alignment.

Harris, import Lee and his fellow second-year-man Douglas-Roberts bring the speed to a starting unit that also has Lopez and X-factor power forward Yi Jianlian.

"We want to continue to get better throughout the year and be as good as we can possibly be," said coach Lawrence Frank. "Whatever than means numerically, we'll see."


Nets sent reserve F/C Tony Battie for an MRI on his sore knee. And Keyon Dooling (hip surgery rehab) is still out.

Nets at Timberwolves - Tonight 8:00 - YES; WBBR (1130 AM)

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