ORLANDO — Maybe if the Nets owned their own first-round pick, they’d be experimenting with a variety of players and lineup combinations because results wouldn’t matter as much if they stood to improve their chances in the draft lottery. But coach Kenny Atkinson has trimmed his regular rotation to nine players and basically is treating the dying days of the season like the playoffs, trying to win every game and gain experience for his core players.
“We want to finish strong,” Atkinson said before the Nets faced the Magic Wednesday night at Amway Center. “I think having momentum going into the offseason is really important. I thought we did that last season. We finished off on an uptick and we’re trying to do the same this season.”
For the fourth straight game, the Nets were in a fight to see if they could finish after building a 15-point third-quarter lead only to see it dwindle to four heading to the fourth period. For a change, the Nets were up to the test, opening the final period with a 17-2 run and holding the Magic without a field goal until their was 5:57 left on their way to a 111-104 victory.
The Nets (24-51) had seven double-figures scorers including a double-doubles from D’Angelo Russell (16 points, 12 assists) and DeMarre Carroll (14 points, 12 rebounds) and 16 points from Caris LeVert. Nikola Vucevic topped the Magic (21-52) with 24 points and 15 rebounds, and Mario Hezonja added 20 points.
“After giving up 30 in the third, I told the guys, ‘This is a game of stops. Are we going to get stops? If we’re going to trade baskets on the road, it’s going to be a tough deal,’” Atkinson said. “I thought the guys locked in. We rebounded better. We had a nice group out there at the beginning of the fourth quarter. That second unit was really good.”
The Nets came in with a 5-22 record in their previous 27 games, but they have been getting closer except for the problem of squandering leads of 23, 14 and nine in the third quarter of their previous three games. Rookie center Jarrett Allen, who had 15 points eight rebounds and one block was thinking about those meltdowns entering the fourth period.
“I’m not sure what everybody else was thinking, but everybody was probably like, ‘We don’t want to mess this one up. We want to actually finish the fourth quarter out the right way,’” Allen said. “You could tell there was a big difference in this game [compared] to all the other games . . . Tonight was a display of what we should be doing.”
The Nets obviously are nowhere near the playoffs this season, but treating their final games as if they are preparing for a playoff push can be vital to their development.
“[General manager] Sean Marks talked to us after the All-Star break and Kenny repeats it to us all the time,” said Joe Harris, who totaled 14 points and shot 4-for-4. “We’re about trying to finish this season the right way. We’re trying to compete and set ourselves up the right way with good momentum going into next season.”