CHICAGO — Bulls coach Jim Boylen walked in front of a television camera and a sizeable horde of reporters Wednesday and — unprompted by question or comment — began his pregame news conference with warm praise for the team in the other locker room.
The Nets are hot, he said, and they’re playing at a high level. “They play the right way and they play hard,” he said, “[and] to me, they’re the best half-court pace team we’ve seen in a while, with how hard they cut, how they move.”
Boylen’s comments were interesting in a few ways, but if you’re the Nets, the biggest takeaway could be this: This team is finding itself, and the league is taking note.
And if you’re the Bulls — in the midst of a brutal rebuild that has them in the Easter Conference basement — the biggest takeaway could also be this: Don’t lose hope, because it can be done (though the process won’t necessarily be all that fun).
The Nets on Wednesday rode into Chicago with the longest active win streak in the NBA — six games — and have, during that span, looked like puzzle that’s on its way to being solved. Those six games have them scoring 121.5 point per game, up from 108.7 from when the streak began (going into Wednesday, that brought their season average to 111.1, good for 14th in the league). They’re moving the ball more — 27.3 assists per game, compared to 22.3; that means they have the fifth-most assists per game in the league during their last six games, after ranking 23rd in that category over their first 26 games. Kenny Atkinson said that’s probably helped their shooting percentage — up 49.9 from 44.1. They’re bench is also scoring an average of 51.3 points and holding the opponents’ bench to 33.8.
“It’s great,” the coach said. “We’re moving it better … Credit to our point guards, first of all. D’Angelo [Russell] is doing a better job, and Spencer [Dinwiddie] is doing a better job. And generally I think added the vets to the mix helps. Jared Dudley is a ball mover, DeMarre [Carroll] moves it. I think those guys help out a lot. And we’re just getting that concept.”
That said, this is still a team under .500, and one that’s battling a slew of injuries — most pivotally, Caris LeVert — and things haven’t been perfect, Atkinson said. He still sees gaps in their defense — perhaps more than they experienced before the streak — and that made him “a little nervous that [it has] slipped a little,” he said.
Being in the second game of a back-to-back highlighted another issue: Before a December win at Madison Square Garden, the Nets had lost 33 straight when playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road. It’s something that could be symptomatic of a slew of things: fatigue, most likely, though maybe immaturity as well.
“We’re not a juggernaut on back to backs on the road, so another good test for us after a good home performance,” Atkinson said before the game. “We’re going to have to grind this one out, that’s my feeling.”
But that’s part of it all. Despite the difference in development, Wednesday was still very much a meeting of two teams trying to figure it out, and the Nets, at least, could be gratified in knowing that they appear to be headed in the right direction.
“I think we’re starting to cement those principles, those habits,” Atkinson said. “I’m really proud. Thinking about it, we have a 20-year-old starting center, 22-year-old point guard. Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] is still only 23. We’ve got a lot of young guys out there. Joe [Harris] is the old man at 27. But young guys that are playing their roles and playing well.”