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Physical practice got Nets back on track

Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez drives to the

Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez drives to the basket against Sacramento Kings defenders Kosta Koufos, Arron Afflalo and Skal Labissiere during the first half of an NBA game in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Photo Credit: AP / Steve Yeater

In life, there comes a time when you must say enough is enough. For the Nets, that time came on Monday, Feb. 27, during a brutal practice session at Cal-Berkeley.

The Nets were as low as could be in a 1-27 streak, coming out of the All-Star break with a blowout loss in Denver and a more competitive effort at Golden State to start an eight-game road trip.

After a day off, they got down to business at Cal. In the words of center Brook Lopez that day, the scrimmage “got a little hostile.” Coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff put their whistles away and chose not to call fouls.

Atkinson believed the Nets were close to a breakthrough, but he had to ask for more.

“We had that really tough practice out there that turned into a donnybrook a little bit,” Atkinson recalled after the Nets defeated playoff-bound Atlanta on Sunday. “I just felt like it was coming.”

After that practice, the Nets snapped a 16-game losing streak at Sacramento. A team that was 9-49 now has gone 7-8 in March and 6-6 in the past 12 games, including three wins against teams that either are in the playoffs or in close contention.

“We weren’t getting the wins, but I felt it [improving] at Golden State,” Atkinson said. “Now, can we sustain it and finish on a positive note? That’s the challenge for our group.”

The challenge continues Tuesday night at Barclays Center against the 76ers, who are 9-12 in their past 21 games. The Nets are 0-2 against the 76ers, but they are a different team since point guard Jeremy Lin returned from a prolonged injury absence.

Recalling that practice at Cal, Lin said, “It was a dogfight. You sometimes have to put that competitive spirit and that nastiness back into players, and I think that’s what happened in that practice.”

K.J. McDaniels was a stranger to the Nets, having been acquired from Houston at the trade deadline. That practice was an eye-opener.

“That was a real physical practice, one of my first physical practices with the team,” McDaniels said. “I just thought the guys were tired of losing. They wanted to finish the season strong and send messages to the other teams and wake ourselves up. It wasn’t a completely different practice, but it just showed how hungry guys were, and it’s been paying off.”

Backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who has played a key role in the Nets’ turnaround, said of that practice: “It was super-competitive, and we really got after it. Any time you do that in practice, guys come together. At the end of the day, you can compete and go hard and fight and all that, but when you step off, you’re still brothers. It reinforces that bond.”

Nobody came to blows, but Atkinson indicated they went right up to the edge. At the same time, he said that eight-game road trip was an exercise in team bonding. McDaniels and Archie Goodwin have joined the Nets since the trade deadline and become regular contributors without a hiccup.

“One of the things Kenny said is that when you establish your own culture, you sweep guys along with you when you have a certain type of culture or camaraderie,” Lin said. “That’s what happened. It’s a seamless transition. Everyone has bought in.”

Atkinson never stresses results as the measure of success, but Lin said the March wins illustrated the “recipe for success” and have built confidence in the Nets before next season.

Lopez agreed, saying, “Kenny throughout the season, when it was tough, just harped and said, ‘We’re going to break through, we’re going to break through.’ We had lots of close games early in the season and we’re seeing results now. It didn’t happen overnight, but I think we finally have that belief. We never really gave up, but we’re seeing the product now.”

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