LOS ANGELES — For the first time in three seasons as a head coach, Kenny Atkinson has the Nets in position to qualify for the playoffs. But with the remaining eight games all against teams in playoff position, he had to be honest when asked recently if he’s enjoying the playoff chase.
“No,” Atkinson said. “There is zero enjoyment in this. That’s terrible to say. I love the players, I love being in the locker room, and I really enjoy this [media] part too, around people that love the game. So that’s cool. Just the anxiety and the stress, the goal we want to get to, I still feel like we’re miles away from it.
“Every game it’s more and more pressure and anxiety, and you carry that around every second of the day. So that’s where the ‘enjoy’ kind of goes out the window.”
All season long, Atkinson tempered enthusiasm about the Nets’ surge into playoff contention by making references to their current seven-game road trip as if it were the monster in the closet that he dreaded. When it began with three straight losses, including a buzzer-beater in the third by Lou Williams of the Clippers, his fears were confirmed.
But a miracle comeback from 28 points down against the Kings followed by a win over LeBron James and the Lakers breathed new life into the Nets’ playoff push with games left at Portland on Monday and Philadelphia on Thursday to complete the marathon trip. Only after the Nets righted the ship to climb to 38-36 did Atkinson admit how important it was to beat two teams with losing records.
“I think we kind of all knew that,” Atkinson said. “We didn’t talk about it. It was important getting these two, especially the way we started the trip and losing the Clippers game.
“But I will say, it would be great to get a bonus one. I just told the guys in the locker room we’ve got two left on this trip. If we could split them, that would be a huge bonus. It would give us a lot of momentum going into the rest of our season.”
Approaching the home stretch, Atkinson identified defensive rebounding and a dip in offensive production since the All-Star break as two key problems. At the same time, the Nets rank third in defensive efficiency rating since the All-Star break, and that was the key to beating the Kings, who were outscored 45-18 in the fourth quarter and the Lakers, who were held to 38.5 percent shooting.
“We got just enough stops,” point guard Spencer Dinwiddie said of how the Nets held off the Lakers. “We want that to be our calling card, especially going to the playoffs and hopefully making a run at this thing. We can’t only rely on shot-making to do that.”
Certainly, defense must provide the foundation for what’s left of the Nets’ stretch run, but if they can rekindle the offensive firepower they showed in December and January as the hottest team in the league, they can be dangerous. So, while D’Angelo Russell has been incredibly productive recently, it was especially encouraging for them to see Joe Harris, the top three-point percentage shooter in the NBA, have a 6-for-8 performance from deep against the Lakers and spark an 11-for-24 second-half effort from three-point range.
Describing the impact of hot shooting by Harris, Dinwiddie said, “We become a much more explosive offense. We go from OK to big-time.”
As for the position the Nets find themselves in with eight games to go, it might be wearing on Atkinson, but the players are locked in and excited. Dinwiddie was asked how confident the Nets are of securing a playoff berth. He offered a one-word answer: “Extremely.”