CHICAGO – There was beauty in all the ugliness, or at least Kenny Atkinson thought so.
It’s true that Wednesday night’s win against the Bulls was, in some respects, a mess. The Nets, playing with the lead weight that is a home and away back-to-back, looked every bit like they’d just traveled 800 miles after taking on LeBron James and the Lakers. The Bulls, the worst team in the Eastern Conference, was a nuisance, and a persistent one at that. And yet, when the final horn sounded, and the Nets could look back on the 96-93 victory at the United Center, all they could see was the beauty of progress.
And all Kenny Atkinson could see was their “best” game of the season, which extended their win streak to seven straight. It’s the longest active streak in the NBA, the longest for the Nets since the 2012-2013 season, and comes off a long-forgotten eight-game losing streak. They’re now one-half game out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
“After [Tuesday] night’s win [against the Lakers] you could easily rest on your laurels and road back to backs have been tough for us so, really, if you want to rank the wins, as a coach, I’d put this first,” Atkinson said. “I think it’s growth. It’s maturity. It’s physical and mental growth. I’m just really pleased. This game was a trap game and I thought it was going to be a real dogfight and it was.”
How much of a dogfight? Well, there were 23 lead changes. The Nets were able to win only by shutting out the Bulls in the final three minutes, three seconds. Joe Harris hit a floater with 43 seconds left to give the Nets a 94-93 lead, and Spencer Dinwiddie forced a turnover with 2.3 seconds left to allow his team to exhale. He hit two free throws for the final margin.
“We learn from our failures and from our mistakes,” Dinwiddie said. “We lost a lot of close games and when you have a lot of guys that are focused and locked in and trying to win and get better and hopefully make the playoffs, then you’re going to improve. We’re not a team that took those losses lightly.”
Dinwiddie scored a team-high 27 points off the bench, his 26th straight double-digit game off the bench, which is second in franchise history. Jarrett Allen had 16 points and 12 rebounds, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – nursing a quad injury he suffered in the Lakers game – helmed the defense down the stretch and scored nine. Kris Dunn led the Bulls with 24.
“Just defense, defense, defense,” Allen said. “Our mentality is grit and it really showed tonight.
It’s really encouraging. It’s showing that all the hard work that we put in during the summer is now really paying off.”
Before December, the Nets had lost 33 straight games when playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road, and that win had been a mere subway ride away – at Madison Square Garden. Chicago, the day after playing at Barclays, though, was a different animal entirely, and it looked it.
They struggled to keep up with the lowly Bulls before finally gaining some traction in the second quarter. Dinwiddie – playing against his former team – gave the Nets their first lead since early in the game, when he hit a driving layup with 4:20 left in the half to put them up 33-31. The Nets eventually went into the break up 40-39, despite the fact that the Bulls were playing without both Zach LaVine (ankle) and Jabari Parker (illness).
Dinwiddie, who had been waived by the Bulls twice and only played in five preseason games with them, had a team-high 14 points off the bench in the first half. The Bulls scored only 12 points in the second quarter – the fewest the Nets have allowed to an opponent in a quarter this season – and were held to 6-for-21 from the floor.
It was stops like those that eventually led the Nets to victory – and is making believers out of the NBA.
“Our offense wasn’t its usual spry and dynamic offense but great job of grinding it out,” Atkinson said. “It wasn’t pretty.”
At least not to everyone else.