DETROIT — The second half of the Nets’ season began in earnest Friday night at Barclays Center when they overcame a 16-point third-quarter deficit to pull out a 101-95 victory over the Heat. It was important not only because it stopped a three-game losing streak but also because the return of D’Angelo Russell means the Nets are as whole as they are going to be this season.
Jeremy Lin, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in the opener, is the only Net who won’t be available.
Progress might be painstaking because Russell — who missed nearly 10 weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee — essentially is starting over and center Jahlil Okafor still is learning the Nets’ ropes since being acquired in a trade in December. But the growth of Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert in the backcourt during Russell’s absence was obvious in the second half against Miami, and now it’s coach Kenny Atkinson’s job to start piecing together the bigger puzzle.
“Every win is big, especially because we’re a young group trying to put everything together,” said Dinwiddie, who scored eight of the Nets’ final 12 points. “Having ‘DLo’ in our fold and adding Jahlil into the fold and trying to really come together as we’re going, every win is a big one.
“It shows growth in this process. That’s what we’re trying to go through while still getting wins.”
The Nets played great second-half defense against the Heat, holding Miami to 42 points and 37.2 percent shooting, including a 2-for-11 performance from three-point range. Russell, who had just one point and two assists and went 0-for-5 from the field, isn’t known for his defense, but he was part of the second unit that was on the floor during a 14-0 run that ended the third quarter and got the Nets back in the game.
“He was just talking us through every possession,” Le Vert said of Russell. “He’s our point guard, he’s our floor general, so he has a presence out there and a voice.”
Russell insisted he wasn’t worried about his offensive numbers or dominating the ball. He was just trying to fit in with his teammates, and the work ethic he showed during his rehab demonstrated his commitment.
“The five that were out there, we just played gritty, and we got the job done,” Russell said of his third-quarter impact. “It wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done. The five that came in to finish the game did a big job, too.”
Some rust was expected, but Atkinson saw that Russell’s instincts were intact when he entered in the third quarter. He immediately found Quincy Acy for an open three-pointer and later dished to a cutting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a dunk.
“You could see he got his rhythm,” Atkinson said. “He’s got a feel as a quarterback, as a point guard, of getting guys shots. Quincy had a pick-and-pop and D’Angelo spun around and hit him and Quincy hit that shot. It was a great set-up by D’Angelo. It really got us going.”
Just in time. The Nets (17-29) will begin a four-game road trip Sunday against the Pistons (22-22) at Little Caesars Arena. Less than two weeks ago, they were taken to the woodshed by the Pistons in a 34-point loss. Then it’s on to Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Minnesota to face three teams in playoff position.
So beating the Heat the way they did was a much-needed kick-start to the Nets’ building process now that they have all their pieces together.
“It’s huge, especially since we are about to go on the road,” LeVert said. “It’s a tough road stretch, so it was big for us.”