DALLAS — When the Nets defeated Memphis at the beginning of their current three-game trip, DeMarre Carroll said it felt like a “must-win” because the Grizzlies were vulnerable as a lower-echelon team struggling with injuries like the Nets. Carroll’s message to his teammates was the same Wednesday night at American Airlines Center, where the Nets faced the Mavs, whose 5-16 record was worst in the Western Conference.
“Tonight is a ‘must-win,’ too,” Carroll said at the morning shootaround. “I said that against Memphis. I’m going to say it again tonight, and hopefully, we come out with the same mindset and try to compete at a high level because we’re trying to get wins. We’re not trying to lose.”
The Nets (7-13) have every excuse to give in to losing considering all the injuries they have sustained. Jeremy Lin (ruptured patella tendon) was lost for the season in the opener, D’Angelo Russell (arthroscopic knee surgery) is on the shelf for several weeks, Allen Crabbe (sore lower back) missed the first two games of the trip in Memphis and Houston, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (sprained ankle) was injured in the first half at Memphis and sat out Houston, as did Carroll, who had a brief illness.
But Carroll assured he would return against the Mavericks, and Hollis-Jefferson tested his ankle at shootaround in the hope he might return. Even missing three current starters at Houston in addition to Lin and Russell, the Nets gave a good account of themselves against the team with the second best record in the NBA.
“It was good for the group, good for the young guys to get out there and compete against a really good team,” Carroll said. “I feel like it was a great opportunity for all of our guys, especially the guys who don’t play that much. I think they handled it really well.”
If adversity is the measure of a team, the Nets have taken a step forward from last season’s NBA-worst 20-62 team. They have two more wins than they did at the same stage last season, and in general, they have been more consistently competitive thanks to the addition of veterans Carroll, Crabbe, Russell, Tyler Zeller and Timofey Mozgov and the growth of their young players.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but from what I’ve heard, we’re way ahead of how we were last year,” Carroll said. “Sometimes, you have to try and get through adversity and obstacles that come throughout the season. We’ve had most of ours early in the season. Hopefully, we’re playing better midway and at the end of the season when everybody is back and we’re jelling and guys are not in and out of the lineup.”
Coach Kenny Atkinson credited general manager Sean Marks with adding depth to the roster, but he also emphasized the development of young players like point guard Spencer Dinwiddie and shooting guard Joe Harris, who have stepped into starting roles with Russell and Crabbe out.
“Spencer last year was a neophyte,” Atkinson said. “Now, you feel like here’s an NBA point guard . . . You’d love to have a stable lineup, because that’s how continuity and real progress happens. I just keep our fingers crossed that we get healthier and healthier and then we can maybe get on a little bit of a groove, have a three- or four-game winning streak. That’s the ideal when we’re fully healthy.”
They needed a win at Dallas for a 2-1 record before playing a home-and-home set with weak Atlanta and then traveling to Mexico City for tough “home” games against Oklahoma City and Miami.
“It would be a real boost for our season,” Atkinson said of the prospect of a winning trip. “We’d really get some good mojo going into the weekend.”