Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson looks on during the first...

Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson looks on during the first half of a game against the Bulls at Barclays Center on Tuesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

For a few years now, the Nets have lived in a challenging dichotomy: They were a team being built for the future that had to focus on the present to have any chance at success.

But things have changed a little these days. The future that once seemed so far off is starting to look tantalizingly close. And with that, comes a new challenge altogether: Focusing on the process when the reward seems within reaching distance. And that, Kenny Atkinson said, will be vital down the stretch.

“We're on message in terms of our approach to each game, focusing on the cliche, the process — we really are involved in that and improving our standards, living up to our standards, that's what we're about,” Atkinson said before the Nets' win over the Bulls Tuesday, their seventh in eight games and their ninth straight at Barclays Center. “There's not a lot of chatter about things that are going to happen in the future. It's really focused on a game-to-game basis and keep building, keep improving, keep getting better."

It isn’t all hollow speech, either. Atkinson proved as much on Monday, when he sat D’Angelo Russell in the fourth quarter against the Celtics. The game, at that point, was still winnable, and Russell is the team’s leading scorer. But Atkinson didn’t like Russell’s effort level, and intended to send a message. The Nets lost, snapping a six-game winning streak . . . but Russell, who was contrite postgame, got the point. It showed again on Tuesday, when the Nets gritted out a game that they almost certainly would have lost last season: It was the second game of an away-and-home back-to-back against an annoying Bulls team that was doing what it could against a tired and injury-bitten team.

With that win, the Nets (28-24) matched their win total from last season, all with a couple weeks to go before the All-Star break.

“Kenny has something established that guys can plug in and out and almost do it seamlessly,” Joe Harris said. “This is why I wanted to be here. You could feel something good was around the corner. You could see everybody improving. Even now, we’re shorthanded and we’re still able to close out games and play basketball the right way. I think that’s the most important thing — that we built a system here.”

Adhering to that system will be pivotal, though maybe not always easy. The next two weeks will be a gut check, with games against the Bucks, Raptors, Nuggets and Spurs. It will be a good metric of the team’s growth and its ability to focus, yes, but also a preview of the playoff basketball they hope to experience in a few months.

“We’re really not done or satisfied,” with the wins they’ve put together, Russell said, responding to getting to 28 wins this early in the season. “Just keep going."

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