In this very challenging stretch — at Toronto, home against Boston, at Houston — the Nets flunked their first test.
“I think we have to play almost perfect games to beat those guys,” Kenny Atkinson said after Sunday’s practice at HSS Training Center.
The Nets are 21-23 after Friday night’s imperfect 122-105 loss to the NBA-best Raptors but have won 13 of 18. Now they will get a chance to rebound against the Celtics on Monday night at Barclays Center.
The first meeting last Monday at TD Garden went badly for the Nets. The 116-95 loss was their worst defeat of the season and their 10th straight loss to Boston. But the Nets had only 10 players available with Joe Harris, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Allen Crabbe and Caris LeVert sidelined.
“It just seemed like we were down energy-wise,” said Harris, who returned the following game along with Carroll. “It didn’t really have anything to do with X’s and O’s, guys making shots, anything like that. It’s definitely a focal point to come out with higher energy.”
The Celtics are fifth in the Eastern Conference after their trip to the conference finals. They’re 25-17 after a 10-10 start.
Kyrie Irving expressed his frustration after Saturday’s 105-103 loss at Orlando, pointing to a lack of experience. “I know . . . that we’re better than most teams in this league,” he told reporters. “It’s just going out and proving it every single night and demanding it and actually showing it.”
Atkinson isn’t worried about the Celtics finding their way. “I think they’re a championship contender,” he said. “I think every team has its ups and downs.’’
His team has been without Hollis-Jefferson for the last six games because of a strained adductor/groin. But Atkinson said he returned Sunday to do “70 percent of the practice.” The power forward is questionable.
Atkinson has to decide on a starter at that spot. Jared Dudley is out with a strained hamstring. Treveon Graham, who opened against Toronto, is a good defender but has shot 7-for-32 over five games after missing 2 1⁄2 months with a hamstring injury. Atkinson said it’s “rust.” Carroll is better defensively when he plays small forward, but he provides better shooting.
“So it’s that kind of dilemma,” Atkinson said.
The Nets will be in seventh place at the opening tip. Carroll said the playoff race “is going to be tight” and added, “I think at home you’ve got to try to sneak a win in some of these games against really good ballclubs to show who you really are.”