Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson reacts during the second quarter...

Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson reacts during the second quarter against the Bulls at Barclays Center on Feb. 8. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Last September, the Nets went into training camp speaking hopefully about becoming a playoff contender, and it sounded like wishful thinking. But as they returned from the All-Star break for an evening practice on Tuesday, the Nets found themselves in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and facing a 23-game stretch drive to realize their dreams.

It won’t be easy. Those 23 games include 18 against teams that either have a winning record or are in playoff position plus a road game against LeBron James and the 28-29 Lakers that comes in the midst of a seven-game trip spanning 17 days. While the top five teams in the East have separated themselves, the Nets are just two games ahead of seventh-place Charlotte, two-and-a-half games up on Detroit and Miami, which are tied for eighth, and three games ahead of 10th-place Orlando.

“I think it’s going to be a dogfight,” coach Kenny Atkinson said in a Tuesday afternoon conference call with reporters. “A lot of those teams are playing well. Orlando has really picked it up, Detroit has really picked it up, Charlotte has a ton of experience with a veteran group. Our sole focus has got to be us continuing to play good basketball and close out these games in a positive fashion.”

Before the break, Allen Crabbe and Caris LeVert returned from long-term injuries, and Jared Dudley said on social media he expects to return from a hamstring injury when the Nets face Portland Thursday night at Barclays Center. Atkinson said there was no update on Dudley until he was checked by the medical team Tuesday evening, and the same was true for Spencer Dinwiddie, who underwent surgery to repair torn right thumb ligaments just over three weeks ago.

Still, it’s clear reinforcements are arriving when the Nets most need them, Although they went into the break with a hard-fought triple-overtime win over Cleveland, they were 2-5 in their last seven games to drop to 30-29. So, they have work to do.

“We’re going to have to do this thing by committee and keep improving with the group,” Atkinson said. “Guys have stretches where they’re playing a lot and other stretches where it might not work out matchup-wise or situationally, and our guys have been great with that, handling the different lineups. Guys have accepted their roles even though things can change.”

The Nets gave up at least 125 points in each of their past four games, but Atkinson said they rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency over a longer 23-game span. He identified defensive rebounding, turnovers and finishing at the rim as areas where they need to improve if they want to make the playoffs a reality.

“Those are the big ones for us in terms of our improvement toward the end of the season,” Atkinson said.

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