Less than two weeks ago, the Nets looked downtrodden, struggling under the weight of injuries and an eight-game losing streak. But starting with an overtime victory against Toronto, which has the NBA’s best record, the Nets’ season has taken a dramatic U-turn.
They carry a five-game winning streak into a meeting with the Lakers and LeBron James Tuesday night at Barclays Center, and suddenly their offense is in high gear after three straight games with at least 120 points.
“Early on, we were leading a lot of close games, just not able to close it out,” Joe Harris said after the Nets (13-18) scored 144 points, the second-highest total in franchise history, against the Hawks on Sunday. “Just getting over the hump for one of them, it started with Toronto. Your confidence to close out games collectively as a team is a lot higher.
“It’s tough when you’re in the midst of an eight-game losing streak to think long term, but you look back and at the end of that eight games, we had 56 more games left. There’s a lot of time to right the ship. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Coach Kenny Atkinson said the Nets struggled to adjust after Caris LeVert suffered a dislocated left ankle back on Nov. 12. But as other players returned from injury and he experimented with a variety of lineup combinations, he began to find some continuity. Even though Allen Crabbe (sore knee) sat out the past two games and is listed as questionable for the Lakers, the Nets’ offense hasn’t missed a beat with rookie Rodions Kurucs starting at small forward.
“Rodi has done a great job jumping into that starting unit,” Atkinson said. “But I think we have guys in their right places, and that helps a lot with understanding what we want offensively.”
Backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie excelled early in the winning streak, but against the Hawks, it was starter D’Angelo Russell whose 32 points, seven assists and zero turnovers set the playmaking tone. He would love to carry that over into a matchup against his former team.
“I keep saying he’s a 22-year-old quarterback,” said Atkinson, who has emphasized to Russell to focus on his elite passing skills. “He keeps getting better. We want it more consistent, but I just think that’s going to come with time.”
Russell said he has cut down his turnovers by not forcing difficult passes, and has improved his commitment to defense. “I’m just trying to keep being aggressive and having a defensive mentality,” said Russell, who set the tone offensively against the Hawks. “That’s a part I can bring, leading by example, getting guys going and getting off to a good start. Being a point guard, I feel like you have to do that.”
The trick now is for the Nets to keep it going.