No one held open the door to the playoffs for the Nets. They banged it down themselves with back-to-back road wins over the Bucks, who have the best record in the NBA, and the Pacers, who are seeded fifth in the Eastern Conference.
That’s why the Nets had the luxury of taking a more relaxed approach to their home finale Wednesday night at Barclays Center against the Heat, who were eliminated from playoff contention the previous night by the 76ers. The 41-40 Nets have an opportunity to clinch the sixth seed with a victory. The Nets could drop to seventh with a loss to Miami combined with a win for the Magic.
“It felt better that we didn’t need someone else to lose,” veteran Jared Dudley said after presenting coach Kenny Atkinson with a game ball in the locker room after Sunday’s victory at Indiana. “It was satisfying.
“But the good thing about it when you come in the locker room, it felt like guys weren’t jumping like they won a championship. I think guys expected it after 10 or 15 games of the year that we had the talent to do it. After that eight-game losing streak and coming back with a seven-game winning streak, you knew this team had a temperament in the locker room that it would just be steady and resilient the whole year.”
If they finish sixth, the Nets will face the third-seeded 76ers, and if they wind up seventh, the Nets will get the second-seeded Raptors. The Nets split the season series with Philadelphia while going 1-3 against Toronto.
Coming down the homestretch of the season, the Nets had to negotiate the NBA’s most difficult finishing schedule that looked like a minefield. They went 2-5 on a 17-day cross-country trip that included games against four Western Conference playoff teams plus the 76ers. After a home win over the Celtics, they dropped home games to the Bucks and Raptors before winning the clinching road back-to-back games.
As Dudley sees it, the experience helped prepare young players such as D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and Rodions Kurucs for the playoff experience.
“This last week of the season kind of magnified what it’s going to be like going to the playoffs,” Dudley said. “We played all playoff teams, all teams with intensity where you can’t come out flat in the first quarter. We did that at Philly. We did that at home a couple times to Milwaukee and Toronto. You can’t really do that when it comes playoff time. But this is perfect for the young core going forward. We’re here now, and we’ve earned the right to be a sixth or a seventh seed.”
With about three weeks left in the season, it was Dudley who articulated the challenge for point guard Russell to prove he could lead a team to the playoffs with consistent play, and he did that. After clinching a playoff berth, Dudley laid out the next challenge for Russell.
“DLo has turned the corner even after his All-Star break, being consistent, being more vocal before games, talking, doing pregame speeches,” Dudley said. “I think the next step for him is valuing the ball more. As a point guard now in the playoffs, turnovers are so crucial for him.
“From our point guard, we need that to be something that we’re not telling the point guard to do; the point guard is telling us. As talented as DLo is at 22 and an All-Star and all that, he’s still got a way to go. A lot of that is the temperament of the team, controlling it, knowing ball security is a thing you’ve got to do.”