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Nets have a shorter check list coming out holiday

Coach Kenny Atkinson says the club, in contention for a playoff spot, needs to "protect the paint" and protect the ball in the final minutes.

Jared Dudley, left, shown here during a victory

Jared Dudley, left, shown here during a victory over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, said of the Nets' problems late in games:  "I think sometimes we get stagnant a little bit, especially the last five minutes when guards pressure us up. We turn the ball over ... Play with the pass. Keep moving the ball side to side."   Photo Credit: James Escher

They were up 20 with six minutes left and won by eight. They allowed 60 points in the paint. Deandre Ayton was a huge double-double worth of trouble for them inside.

The Nets went off for their two-day Christmas break after beating the Suns on Sunday night at Barclays Center. The wins have been coming much more often, eight of them in the last nine games. The Nets are 16-19, only one game out of the postseason picture heading into Wednesday night, when Charlotte will visit to tip off a home-and-home set.

But they’re going to have to apply some more polish to their finishing skills without a go-to superstar and to their defense to continue a run at claiming their first playoff ticket in four years. With eight of 11 coming up away from Brooklyn, not to mention much March road madness ahead, including a seven-game swing, they will need to be better.

“Now it’s time to start pushing,” Jared Dudley said. “I think confidence is growing for us . . . I mean, we’re right here in the thick of things.”

It’s just that Indiana pulled free over the final two minutes of a tight game Friday night to snap the Nets’ winning streak at seven games. Then D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie had a combined four turnovers in those last six minutes against Phoenix.

“I didn’t think we were smooth at all at the end there,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “If the game’s a little closer, that’s a nail-biter. I’m going to put it a little bit on D’Angelo and Spencer. Those guys and myself, we’ve got to sit down and find some stuff that we really like to execute at the end.”

Dudley sees the problem and the solution.  “I think sometimes we get stagnant a little bit, especially the last five minutes when guards pressure us up,” he said. “We turn the ball over .  .  . Play with the pass. Keep moving the ball side to side.”

On the defensive side, Atkinson knows they need to take another step forward.  “I still think the defense could be better,” he said. “I think we’re in an OK place, not a great place. I think the offense — we’re doing a decent job there. I just think our defense, we’ve got to find some solutions to get stops.”

The vicinity of the basket would be a good place to start. Ayton, the Suns’ 7-1 rookie center, dented them for 26 points and 18 rebounds.

“We’re not protecting the rim like we did earlier in the season,” Atkinson said. “We’ve got to figure that out .  .  . That’s definitely an issue. We have to do a better job protecting the paint.”

Notes & quotes: Allen Crabbe is listed as out with a sore right knee. The guard/forward will miss his seventh straight game.

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