Five games is a small sample size, but it appears an improved NBA franchise might be growing in Brooklyn. There’s no premature hype coming from the Nets, but you can sense newfound respect in the voices of their opponents.
Orlando coach Frank Vogel touted them as a “playoff contender” on Tuesday before his Magic overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to pull out a win. Then LeBron James of the defending Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers gave his seal of approval after Cleveland wiped out the Nets’ 14-point fourth-quarter lead, only to get outgunned down the stretch, 112-107, Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
The Nets hit a season-high 17 three-pointers on a franchise-record 46 attempts, shooting 6-for-10 in the final period and ending the game on a 15-7 run. “They’re just playing free, free of mind, that’s exactly how they are playing,” James said. “They’re moving it, they’re sharing it and that’s good ball.”
Kevin Love added: “They let it fly. They drive the ball, drive-and-kick and then just play up-tempo. They want to score the basketball. They use it as a weapon, and they showed that.”
The Nets, who will face the Knicks on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, are the highest-scoring team in the NBA, but they have struggled with inconsistent defense and too many turnovers while blending in six new players and learning how to work together. Leading scorer D’Angelo Russell (sprained right knee) sat out the Cavs game and is doubtful to face the Knicks, but the Nets cut their turnovers to 13 against Cleveland and got the stops they needed at the end.
Fittingly, backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was signed out of the G-League last season, led the way with a career-high 22 points, five rebounds, six assists and only two turnovers in nearly 32 minutes. His growth under coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff is a reflection of the organization’s commitment to player development.
Dinwiddie said the deep go-ahead three-pointer he hit with 43 seconds left against the Cavs is a shot he’s worked on with assistant Adam Harrington, his assigned player development coach. “In terms of the growth, it’s a credit to the coaching staff,” Dinwiddie said. “Earlier in my career at the previous stops I had, they didn’t believe in me the same way this coaching staff does. So it made me a little bit rocky, missed shot and come out, things like that. But they’ve told me to go out there and shoot it, so shoot it.
“Early in my career, I always felt I was looking over my shoulder, and obviously, nobody can really function effectively like that. It was really tough for me, and part of that, I’m sure, is just being young . . . But they [Nets coaches] have inspired that kind of ‘go out there and play’ mentality.”
Dinwiddie is not alone in appreciating the freedom the Nets’ coaches permit on offense. Allen Crabbe, the second-leading three-point shooter in the NBA last season at Portland, is enjoying his expanded role with the Nets.
After going 0-for-4 from three-point range in the first half against the Cavs, Crabbe finished 4-for-10 from deep while scoring 19 points and maintaining a positive mindset. “Nobody on this team is telling me to stop shooting,” Crabbe said. “They kept telling me the next one is going to go in. You saw what happened. After you see the first one go in, you get a little more confident and you just keep putting them up.”
The key for the young Nets is learning to stay disciplined on defense and ballhandling. Their fourth-quarter comeback against the Cavs showed progress in those areas,
“Last year, if we had lost that lead, we probably would have never come back from it,” forward Trevor Booker said. “This year, it’s a different mindset. We’ve got a few different pieces, we kept our composure and we made some big plays down the stretch.”