If you drew a graph tracking the Nets’ performance through the first 53 games leading to the All-Star break, it would be the very definition of a rollercoaster season – a slow 5-8 start, followed by a hot 16-5 streak without injured Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert, then a horrid 2-12 stretch after the Christmas break before a 7-3 turnaround capped by a win that snapped defending NBA champion Toronto’s 15-game winning streak.
It adds up to a 25-28 record that leaves them in seventh place in the Eastern Conference as they await Irving’s return from his latest injury, a right knee sprain that sidelined him the past five games. The Nets knew they faced a challenge without Kevin Durant, who is expected to miss the entire season while rehabbing from Achilles tendon surgery, but many other injuries and the resulting lack of continuity have left them searching for their identity.
“I’m starting to discover this team,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I know it’s the All-Star break, and you say, ‘Well, coach, you should know your team.’ It’s not that easy. The new guys, like DeAndre [Jordan], I’m starting to get to know these guys a lot better. That’s why I think the longer we’re together, the better we’re going to get. The more continuity we have, the better we’re going to get. The talent is there.”
The Nets’ recent performance is evidence of that. They lost a one-point heartbreaker in Toronto on Saturday but then scored their first road win over a winning team Monday at Indiana before beating the Raptors at home. Lately, they have discovered a new level of toughness they will need coming out of the break when they play 10 of the next 14 games on the road.
Their win over the Raptors was important because that’s who the Nets would face if the playoffs opened today. “This wasn’t a playoff game, but it gave us good information,” Atkinson said. “When we’re healthy and we have our whole roster intact, we’ll be pretty good. Let’s see how this stretch after the All-Star break goes. We really want to gain some momentum, be playing well at the end of the season.”
There are no guarantees Irving, who has played only 20 of 53 games, will be ready after the break. Jordan cautioned against rushing Irving back, saying, “We can’t have him come out and be 75, 80 percent for us because we’re looking at things down the line. We want him to be ready to go whenever he comes back…We’ll hold down the fort until Ky gets back.”
Spencer Dinwiddie, who has played superbly at point guard in Irving’s absence, jokingly blamed the post-Christmas slump on “too much egg nog” and said the Nets understand they must return with a playoff mentality.
“It really started before the break, but we capitalize on that momentum and carry it into the games after that,” Dinwiddie said. “I think [Atkinson is] also a little bit wary of another break and how we came out at Christmas, which was terrible. We hope not to do that again, learn from our mistakes and play playoff basketball.”