CHICAGO — When he took the Nets’ coaching job last season, Kenny Atkinson understood he was at rock bottom of the NBA’s toughest rebuilding job with none of the team’s first-round draft picks until 2019. But as hard as he has worked to keep it positive, Atkinson admits nights like Tuesday’s 26-point loss in Philadelphia crush his soul.
“As a coach, the Philadelphia game, you’re ready to turn your resignation in,” Atkinson said. “You just feel terrible.”
But if the Nets have developed one dominant trait in two seasons under Atkinson, it’s the “bounce-back gene.” Coming off that ugly loss, the Nets faced the Bucks, who had beaten them by 25 and 15 points, and upset a playoff-bound team Thursday in Milwaukee.
“I keep saying we’re playing for a lot,” Atkinson said after the game. “We’re playing for our future, for our culture, for our organization, and we’re playing for our fans. No one is on vacation yet. That’s a good win right there.
“I’d say we’re pretty resilient. I do hear the comments from the other coaches. I think there’s a respect that we come out and play hard for the most part. All year when we had a really bad loss, we always come back. That’s part of maturity. There’s growth there.”
Since enduring a 3-19 stretch that took the starch out of his team’s season, Atkinson has remained steadfast in his determination to finish strongly, as the Nets did a year ago, when they went 11-13 at the end. Heading into the first of a home-and-home set with the Bulls (27-52) on Saturday night at United Center, the Nets (26-53) are 5-5 in their previous 10 games.
Against the Bucks, the Nets blew an 11-point third-quarter lead but came back in the fourth to win. They held All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo to 19 points and 7-for-21 shooting.
“It’s our growth,” said Allen Crabbe, who scored 10 of his 25 points in the final period. “We’ve been in many situations like that this year, and usually the game goes the other way, but I feel we were on point this whole game start to finish . . . We’re trying to end the season the right way, trying to head into the offseason with three more wins. It’s a really feel-good win for us.”
Nobody felt better about the victory or the growth it demonstrated than Atkinson. “The fact we could compete athletically [and] technically just gives you hope,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the talent over there, a playoff team led by Giannis.
“If you lose this game by 20, you’re depressed all offseason because they’re so far ahead of us. And they still are ahead of us. Let’s not get carried away. But I do think we can compete with a team like this. It’s good to know for our guys.”