This season was the grace period for the new Nets regime headed by general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson. It was understood that they were rebuilding the organization from the ground up with a roster populated by reclamation projects who would be hard-pressed to match even the previous season’s 21-61 record.
The Nets lived down to preseason expectations during their horrific 1-27 midseason stretch, but Saturday’s stirring fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Bulls and close out the home schedule was promising because it put the Nets at 11-11 in the past 22 games and moved them to 20-60 overall, with clear evidence of progress.
“We knew that we didn’t have the initial respect of everybody coming in,” said point guard Jeremy Lin, who missed 45 games with injuries but returned after the All-Star break to lead an about-face. “Unfortunately, the record shows we didn’t disprove that. But that’s all right. The progress and improvement is what we see in the locker room. We’re finishing strong.”
At the very least, the Nets earned respect from a fan base that kept showing up at Barclays Center through a lean winter and that cheered the way they lived up to the advertising slogan by showing “Brooklyn grit.”
“I’m just thankful to all the fans who were loyal and stayed true and kept coming to the games and kept rooting for us,” Lin said. “It’s a work in progress. But if the fans stick with us, we’ll be all right. I believe next year will be a much better year.”
Atkinson echoed Lin’s sentiments about the fan response, saying, “I live in Brooklyn. I’m out in Brooklyn in terms of being out at the store or with my family. The feedback I always get is: ‘We understand what you’re doing. We like what you’re doing.’ ”
Now it’s on to the final two road games of the season against the Celtics (51-29) on Monday night at TD Garden and the Bulls on Wednesday night at United Center. One win would tie last season’s record and ensure a .500 finish in their final 24 games after a 16-game losing streak. They have won four of their last five and seven of 11.
Is it impossible to believe the Nets, who have the salary-cap space to be players in the free-agent market plus two late first-round draft picks and two second-round picks, could become playoff contenders next season?
“Really, making another step to me is playing better, more consistent,” Atkinson said. “Staying healthy obviously is going to be a big part of that . . . In terms of wins and losses, I’m not going to predict all that. But I think we all feel it. We all understand what improvement looks like. But I am anxious to have a healthy roster and a group that’s definitely going to make a jump next year.”
With Brian Heyman