The Nets’ seven-game winning streak came to an end when they let a three-point lead over the Pacers slip in the final three minutes Friday night, and if coach Kenny Atkinson’s ejection in the final minute wasn’t evidence of how much he wanted an eighth straight win, he underlined it after practice on Saturday.
“I think the most crushing defeat to me — ‘crushing,’ that’s probably a harsh word — but the hardest defeat was last night,” Atkinson said. “We wanted that win. We wanted to keep that going for guys and we had an opportunity.
“It’s almost like that defeat was harder than maybe our fifth loss in a row during the [eight-game] losing streak. It’s weird the emotions you have. I really wanted to use it as a measuring stick of where we were against playoff teams to confirm. We’re still not at that level.”
As Atkinson suggested, the Nets wanted to defeat the Pacers to confirm evidence that built over the course of their seven-game winning streak that they can compete with playoff teams. They fell just short.
Now the task is for the Nets (15-19) to build on their success Sunday at Barclays Center against the Suns (8-25). After losing 10 straight games, Phoenix won four in a row before losing on the road to the Wizards, 149-146, in triple overtime on Saturday night.
One loss to the Pacers isn’t going to derail the self-confidence the Nets have gained. The veteran leadership of Jared Dudley, DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis should help a young team stay focused on doing what is necessary to keep growing.
“Part of our growth against a team like Indiana was their contribution, their physicality, their understanding of what it takes to play against a playoff team,” Atkinson said of his veterans. “I think that has helped our young guys understand what it takes.”
Dudley recently said he believes this Nets team can be special because of how it has adjusted since losing Caris LeVert to a dislocated ankle on Nov. 12. Even during the eight-game losing streak, the Nets’ point differential was only minus-6.5. They were losing close, and it helped them learn how to win close.
Dudley said one key was figuring out how to mix and match point guards D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie and then insert rookie Rodions Kurucs into the rotation.
“We started playing Spencer and D’Angelo a little bit more,” Dudley said. “Because they were playing more, they weren’t forcing the action, they were getting more guys involved. The rookie, Rodi, is giving us a huge spark and adding a different component to our team, and our bench basically is our veteran leadership. We’re the ones who keep it stable.”
Dudley said the Nets’ belief in themselves has grown to the point that even the loss to the Pacers was good because of how they fought back from a 15-point deficit to lead late in the fourth quarter.
“It really starts with our point guard play,” Carroll said of the turnaround. “D’Angelo and Spence have been phenomenal for us. We just follow them. They took ownership and got better on their end, and it just trickled down. It’s a trickle-down effect. We’re definitely not there yet, but we’re trending in the right direction.”
If there’s one other intangible that leads Dudley to believe the Nets can sustain their recent success, it’s the camaraderie they share on and off the court. Right now, they’re all rowing in the same direction.
“Selfishness can hurt a team, especially a young team with a lot of contract players,” Dudley said, meaning players in the final year of a contract. “I haven’t seen that at all so far. That’s the positive.”