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Nets know they must learn how to close out games

The team has played competitive to the end, but have lost their last three games by six or fewer points.

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson looks on

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson looks on during a timeout against the Houston Rockets in an NBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

SAN FRANCISCO — After losing 15 of their past 17 games, the record says the Nets are caught in a death spiral. But lately, coach Kenny Atkinson has insisted his team is getting better. It’s a tough case to make, especially in the face of mounting frustration by the fan base, but Atkinson’s argument has merit.

The painful evidence has been in plain sight over the first three games of the Nets’ current five-game road trip. They lost the lead for good with 40.2 seconds left in Cleveland, with 1:06 left in overtime in Sacramento and with 33.8 seconds left against the Clippers Sunday in Los Angeles. That’s three straight losses by six or fewer points that the Nets had a chance to win at the end.

“Yeah, very discouraging,” Atkinson said after his team blew an eight-point lead with barely three minutes left against the Clippers. “We couldn’t make the plays to put it away. They say the hardest thing in professional sports is to close out a game. That’s where we’re at right now with our ability to close it out. We’re not there yet.

“We’ve been in a lot of games like this. The experience our young guys are getting in games like this, I just think we’re going to be paid back down the road.”

It doesn’t get any easier Tuesday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland, where the Nets face the defending NBA champion Warriors. In their previous meeting, the Nets cut a 28-point deficit to four before losing by seven.

Ahead of Sunday’s loss, the Nets spent practice working on plays at the end of games. Down three against the Clippers with 8.9 seconds to go, Spencer Dinwiddie got the ball to Joe Harris, whose potential tying three was blocked from behind. He recovered the ball, but his final desperation shot was short.

“I think our timing was a little off on the last play,” Dinwiddie said. “But we got it to the people we wanted to get it to. That’s all you can ask for . . . We’re a young group. We’re learning every single game. We’ve also closed out some games, as well. But we’ve lost a lot.”

The Nets overcame a 15-point deficit Sunday only to give it back when the Clippers closed with a 13-2 run. “It’s very frustrating,” said Caris LeVert, who scored a career-high 27 points off the bench. “We feel like half the games this year have come down to one or two plays. We’ve been on the losing side of it probably 80 percent of the time. We’ve got to figure out how to shore it up and get those wins.”

During their current 2-15 stretch, the Nets have lost six games by six or fewer points. For the season, the Nets are a very respectable 12-14 in games decided by six or fewer points.

“I wish I could pinpoint one thing,” Atkinson said when asked about late-game breakdowns. “The shot selection and the inability to get a key stop, it works both ways. That’s why you lose an eight-point lead. It’s not just one or the other. It’s both.”

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