ATLANTA — Before the Nets began the second half of their season against the Hawks Friday night at Philips Arena, coach Kenny Atkinson delivered a midterm report card to his team that could be summed up as good defense and declining offense. But the real question is how much the Nets might improve on their 15-26 first-half record when D’Angelo Russell returns from knee surgery and when Jahlil Okafor assumes a larger role.
“Our offense is trending down,” Atkinson said. “Our pace has decreased. We’re turning it over a lot more. Our free-throw rate’s gone down, too. The good news is our defense has improved a lot. Teams aren’t shooting as well against us. Effective field-goal percentage is down. I think we’re doing a good job of forcing the right type of shots, we’re defending the three-point line, we’ve done a much better job of keeping teams off the free-throw line . . . It’s going in the right direction.”
Russell sat out against the Hawks but has been practicing and is close to a return. He took part in a full-court, three-on-three scrimmage at shootaround Friday morning and has built strength during his recovery from knee surgery with a workout regimen lasting four to five hours per day.
“The goal is to get healthy and put everyone in,” Atkinson said. “Now, when D’Angelo comes back, we’re going to have to figure out what that looks like . . . Do you play Spencer [Dinwiddie] and D’Angelo together? D’Angelo will come back progressively. I’m looking at what’s best for him. Is it best to start him? Definitely thinking about it, but no conclusions yet.”
Since acquiring Okafor a month ago, he has played a limited role. He was scoreless in 17 minutes in the Nets’ blowout loss to Detroit on Wednesday, but Atkinson liked what he saw.
“I know everybody wants him to score 30 points and he wants to do it, but I thought he made the right plays,” Atkinson said. “He’s understanding what we’re doing, and it’s just going to take time. I see the talent. I see the flashes. He’s got some stuff that other guys don’t have.
“He’s still in training-camp mode, still getting his conditioning better. And it’s improved twentyfold. Keep that going, and it will pay dividends. But I like his process right now. He wants to have a great game for us, and it will happen. I’m convinced because I see the talent. He’s been very voluntary and very willing . . . He’s going to really help us. I believe that.”