BOSTON — Even with a strong 11-13 finishing kick over the final 24 games last season, the Nets’ 20-62 record was worst in the NBA. But their 110-97 loss to the Celtics in the season finale Wednesday night at TD Garden, gave the Nets’ 28-54 mark was better than seven other teams this season.
Their eight-game improvement was tied for second-best in the Eastern Conference behind the 76ers’ 24-win quantum leap. “We’re no longer 30th” might not be the most upbeat slogan, but the Nets nonetheless can take pride in making significant improvement and once again putting together a late-season surge with a 7-6 record in the last 13 games.
“The motto was gradual improvement,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of the game plan entering the second season of their rebuild under general manager Sean Marks. “Did we blow it out of the water and have a 20-game improvement? With the Hawks, we went from 38 to 61 wins. That’s where you just kill it. Our development, we’re kind of still pounding the rock.
“It’s gradual improvement, and I think we’re on target for that. We wish it was better, especially with five or six overtime losses, it could have been a little better. That’s a little frustrating, but maybe that’s where we are in our stage right now. So, I’m proud of it, but not celebrating an eight-win improvement. In this league you need heart and playing intelligently to get to the real high level.”
The Celtics (54-27) outrebounded the Nets, 62-44, including 20-10 in offensive boards, and center Aron Baynes dominated inside with 26 points and 14 rebounds underlining the Nets need for more size and toughness. Former Net Shane Larkin had 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Nik Stauskas led the Nets (28-53) with 18 points, and they got 16 from Allen Crabbe but they shot only 27.5 percent from three (11 of 40).
“Disappointed in tonight, but I’m going to look at the positive and look at the way we finished the season playing much better, definitely trending upwards,” Atkinson said. “Games like this, you don’t like to end that way, but it also puts that little chip on your shoulder.
“For us the offseason starts [Thursday] morning. I think there is going to be a sense of urgency for us all to improve our situation. I’m raring to go, and I know these guys will get a week or two of rest and then get back on the horse.”
One obvious improvement this season was the addition via trades of point guard D’Angelo Russell, shooting guard Allen Crabbe and veteran small forward DeMarre Carroll. All of them had career seasons, though Russell was only a shade better because his season was interrupted by a 10-week absence related to knee surgery and then a recovery period when he came off the bench.
“We improved because our personnel improved,” Atkinson said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. I don’t think we’re satisfied or celebrating. We do celebrate that we play hard and are competitive. I’m very happy people respect that.”
Another point of pride for the Nets is all the players who have blossomed as a result of their development program with opportunity to play, including Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Quincy Acy. Rookie center Jarrett Allen and Caris Levert, the first-round pick from 2016 also made strides along with 2015 first-round pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Describing the Nets’ improvement in the win column, Hollis-Jefferson said, “It says we have a lot of potential. We’re willing to work. At the end of the day, it’s about making strides in the right direction, just knowing you’ve gotten better in every aspect. We’ve shown a lot of people we’re better than what they think we are.”