HOUSTON — After two seasons spent wandering in the wilderness since starting to rebuild from scratch under general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets suddenly find themselves in uncharted territory. Playoff territory.
They are 14-5 in their past 19 games, seventh in the Eastern Conference and 22-23 overall with a chance to reach .500 if they upset the injury-plagued Rockets and super-hot James Harden as they begin a two-game road trip Wednesday night at Toyota Center. With 14 games left before the All-Star break, the Nets know now is the time to push because the schedule only gets tougher after the break.
Atkinson has been loath to mention playoffs, but after beating the Celtics on Monday, he said, “I will admit that, as it keeps going on, it becomes more important. We’re obviously in a position we’ve never been in. If we continue to make strides, these games are going to take on more and more significance.
“Right now, we’re playing games that mean something. That’s exciting for our crowd, but it’s also exciting for our development and our confidence. These guys think they can do something special, and so far, we’re making strides.”
Put an asterisk beside the victory over the Celtics if you like because Boston starters Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart were out. If they beat the Rockets, one factor will be the absence of injured Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. On the other hand, the Nets have gone an extended period without injured starters Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Jared Dudley as well as key contributors Allen Crabbe and Shabazz Napier, but Hollis-Jefferson is close to returning.
“That’s the thing that pleases me the most,” Atkinson said. “If you had asked, ‘Could we be in this position without those guys?’ I would say, ‘No way.’ I do think we’re deeper, but . . . we’re doing it with some key players out. It makes it extra special.”
The Rockets started slowly, but reigning MVP Harden has been so hot recently that he has carried them past their injuries. Harden scored 57 in a win over Memphis on Monday to extend his streak of scoring 30-plus points to 17 straight games, the longest since Wilt Chamberlain’s 20-game streak in 1964. In the 12 games since Paul went down with a hamstring injury in mid-December, Harden is averaging 41.9 points per game. In January, he’s averaging 39.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11 assists per game.
The Nets’ defense has been much better in their successful run, but they must be on point to stop Harden. They can’t afford lapses such as the one in the fourth quarter against the Celtics when they let a 27-point lead dwindle to seven.
“When you have a team like that down, you’ve got to figure out a way to keep it there,” guard Joe Harris said. “You can’t let good teams back in the game . . . We have to take that next step and solidify some wins and not let teams back into it.”
Still, the record shows the Nets are much improved against the elite teams. They are 5-7 against the six teams ahead of them in the East. Now, they have a shot at another confidence booster.
“This is a big stretch for us,” Harris said. “It’s going to be a tough game down in Houston. Again, it’s kind of a barometer to see where we’re at.”