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Nets look to pick up the pace down the stretch

Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson drives the ball past

Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson drives the ball past Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen at Barclays Center on Feb. 26, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

SACRAMENTO — Exactly one year ago, the Nets arrived at the Golden 1 Center to play the Kings with a 1-27 record over the previous two months, including 16 straight losses. They beat the Kings that night to begin an 11-11 stretch before losing their final two games to finish with the NBA’s worst record at 20-62.

When they faced the Kings Thursday night, the Nets already had matched last season’s win total with 20 games left in their season, but they were hoping to get not only win No. 21 but to pile up as many victories as possible to carry a strong finish into the offseason.

Reminded of those horrid numbers at the Thursday morning shootaround, forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson smiled and said, “1-27? You sure about that? Check those numbers again. . . . Do I remember?”

How could he ever forget? But Hollis-Jefferson certainly recalled the turnaround that followed and the difference it made for a struggling franchise.

“You could tell it was a different energy in the locker room, a different feel, especially after losing so many games,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Just talking to everybody, hanging around each other, you get that certain bounce, that certain feeling. Whatever we’ve got to do to compete and come out like that, I’m all for it. That was good. We want that feeling to come back.”

At the same time, the Nets weren’t focused specifically on win No. 21 as much as they were trying to finish in a positive vein.

“We, as a group, aren’t saying, ‘Oh, 21 wins is our marker,’ ” Spencer Dinwiddie said. “We want to go 20-0 and get to 40 wins. That’s what we’re playing for. I don’t think 21 is like this golden number for the players.”

This season’s Nets just came through a midseason slump that was similar to last season, if not as prolonged. They went 1-12, including eight straight losses before a home win over the Bulls on Monday. That was followed by a road loss on Tuesday in which they went toe-to-toe against the reigning Eastern Conference champion Cavs, a game with seven lead changes in the final four minutes.

“I think us being able to score with them was definitely a good sign,” Dinwiddie said. “We’ve been talking about that upward trajectory and continuing to improve all year. We do want to see it show up in the win column, especially right now with how many games we have left. But this culture is built on improvement. So that’s always a good sign.”

Recalling that win last year in Sacramento, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said that difficult West Coast trip helped the Nets bond through tough practices that stressed defense. He’s hoping for a similar turnaround.

“I don’t think there’s a win total in mind,” Atkinson said. “The message is about us improving. If we surpass (20 wins), that’s good. It’s good for the fans, it’s good for the organization to see. But let’s not surpass it by one. I would just like to see where we can get.

“I was disappointed we got off track in our (recent) bad stretch. We took a little bit of a hit. Hopefully, we can get back on track. Not marginal improvement, but you’d love to have seven-game, eight-game, 10-game improvement. It’s more about giving us impetus going into the offseason. It will help our confidence. I think it helps your fans. It’s just a positive thing. We’ll see where we can get to.”

Notes and quotes: Atkinson said Hollis-Jefferson’s minutes will “ramp up,” but rejoining the starting lineup is “down the line.” . . . Jahlil Okafor missed his third straight game with flu symptoms, but he is expected to rejoin the Nets for their next game against the Clippers on Sunday in Los Angeles.

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