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Coach Kenny Atkinson says Nets are 'in a good place' as playoff race tightens with three games to go

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson against the

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson against the Toronto Raptors at Barclays Center on April 3, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The way Kenny Atkinson describes it, building up the Nets sounds a little like building up a muscle.

First comes the stressor — for the Nets, that has meant injuries, inexperience and some painful losses — and then strength follows. Old muscle fibers are replaced with stronger ones, and just like that, this team is a breath away from the playoffs.

But it’s not there yet.

With a pivotal final three games ahead of the Nets, Atkinson hopes the challenges they’ve faced in this latest stretch will teach his young team the lessons they need to learn to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

On Friday, with the Nets gearing up to take on the NBA-best Bucks after losing seven of their last 10 games, Atkinson preached his gospel loudly and with vehemence.

“It’s great,” he said. “We’ve gotta earn it. It’s not given to us. In a weird way, I kinda like that it’s difficult. The road is difficult and we’re going to embrace it, we’re going to enjoy it. I think it’ll help in our growth and our development.”

Maybe, but this road looks particularly treacherous. Though it’s true the Bucks are playing for nothing — they’ve already locked up the Eastern Conference’s first seed — the Nets’ last two games of the season will be against the fifth-seeded Pacers, followed by the Heat in what easily could be a play-in game. The Nets are tied for seventh with Detroit, with Orlando a half-game ahead, Miami a game behind and Charlotte two games behind.

The Nets are mostly inexperienced when it comes to playoff games, and by Atkinson’s own admission, they’re only playing “good” down the stretch against “elite” teams. It’s just not enough, though he doesn’t think recent failures have demoralized the team.

“I don’t think we’re at the point now where two losses in a row hurt our confidence,” he said. “I think we’re in a good place. We know who we are. We have our roles. We have our rotation set, so I think I’m not worried about the confidence thing .  .  . In the end, we’re going to be much better. Either way, whether we make the playoffs or we don’t make the playoffs, it’s going to push us to another level.”

It is true that the Nets have raised their NBA cachet. Between their swank training facility, progressive front office and recent success, the team has painted itself as an attractive destination for free agents. Which is not to say missing the playoffs wouldn’t be a huge disappointment, not when they’ve been firmly in contention for most of the season.

“This whole year has been a challenge for us,” DeMarre Carroll said. “I think we’re up for the task.”

Carroll: Russell ‘a good guy.’ Despite D’Angelo Russell’s rocky start to life in the NBA, Carroll said the Nets’ All-Star point guard is nothing like the way he was previously portrayed in the media.

“Before, I thought he was just a knucklehead,” Carroll said. “But now his locker is next to mine all the time. He’s right next to me all the time. I just understand that he’s a good guy. Everything he does, he means well, he’s got a good heart .  .  . Sometimes you can do things and it can blow up in a bigger light than [expected]. Some of the things you regret, but at the end of the day, I think coming to New York, different scenery, having good vets around and a good group around, now he understands where he stands in the game of basketball.”

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