ORLANDO, Fla. — For the first time in his two-plus seasons working to develop a sustainable winning culture, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson took a moment to measure his team’s growth after Wednesday’s miraculous overtime victory over the Rockets and reigning MVP James Harden.
“I’ll admit it, that’s real progress,” Atkinson said after a 145-142 thriller in which the Nets overcame a 58-point performance by Harden. “I don’t want to have a parade or anything, but that’s big-time progress.
“The group deserves it with the injuries we’ve had, different guys stepping up through that losing streak, how they stayed together. It’s a heck of an accomplishment, but I think these guys want more. There’s a rise in confidence and it’s great to see.”
The Nets (23-23), who will face the Magic on Friday night at Amway Center, have gone 15-5 in their past 20 games and are tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference with the Heat (21-21).
After leading scorer Caris LeVert was lost to a dislocated ankle on Nov. 12, the Nets endured a 2-10 stretch and fell to 8-18 as injuries to several other players mounted.
That’s when the resilient spirit they’ve nurtured and the veteran leadership from a much-improved roster kicked in. Their never-say-die attitude was evident against the Rockets in microcosm as they came back from eight down in the final minute of regulation and from seven down in the final 1:28 of overtime.
“One of our core principles is resiliency, and we showed that tonight,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 25 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter and overtime and added 10 assists. “We’ve shown that really all season. We’ve been decimated by injuries, but we found a way to pull together and grind out wins and really turn our season around from where we were.”
Dinwiddie showed his toughness after Atkinson recently called on him to lift his level of play back to where it was earlier this season. Asked about putting the ball in Dinwiddie’s hands at the end, Atkinson said, “Yeah, we put in a new play. It was called ‘everybody get out of the way.’ We had to play quick, no plays. He thrives in that situation when he’s got driving lanes.”
Dinwiddie wasn’t alone. DeMarre Carroll (22 points), Treveon Graham (21 points) and Jarrett Allen (20 points, 24 rebounds) all had big games as seven Nets scored in double figures.
Explaining the key to the comebacks against the Rockets, Carroll said, “Staying composed. In the beginning of the year, we were panicking, but we just stayed composed.”
Dinwiddie said the Nets’ climb to .500 wasn’t a specific goal, but now that they are in the playoff hunt, the goal is to prove they belong.
“With the way our seasons have gone in the past, to be considered that caliber of team and be in the playoff race and beat one of the best teams in the league and arguably the best player in the league when he basically gave us 60 points, that’s a testament to our group,” Dinwiddie said. “To be able to come back and get a win is big-time.”