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Nets, starting to get healthy and emphasizing defense, are shooting for playoffs

Quincy Acy worked on his free-throw shooting

Quincy Acy worked on his free-throw shooting and is hitting a career-high 81.6 percent. Credit: AP / Michael Dwyer

Approaching the halfway mark of the NBA season, the Nets are eight games below .500 at 15-23, but amazingly enough, they are only four games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They face the conference-leading Celtics on Saturday night at Barclays Center, but they took them to the wire in a New Year’s Eve loss in Boston and are beginning to believe bigger things lie ahead.

The Nets turned a corner with two home wins at the start of a stretch in which they play eight of 10 games at Barclays Center, Jahlil Okafor is just joining the rotation and the return of injured D’Angelo Russell is expected soon. Do the Nets dare dream of a playoff run?

“Everybody talks about it,” Quincy Acy said after Friday’s practice. “We’re not just here playing basketball. We’re playing for a goal. We’re building for a future, but we’re trying to win every game. What better way to prepare than to get to the playoffs right now while we’re all young and inexperienced? So yeah, playoffs are a real goal. We all believe it top to bottom.”

The key to winning three of their past four games, including a victory at Miami before the loss in Boston, has been renewed emphasis on defense. Acy said coach Kenny Atkinson harped about the need to prevent “slippage” in their defensive habits.

“Coach says, ‘I don’t want to sound cocky, but we can score with anybody,’ ” Acy said. “We have to get stops, we have to take it next level, locking in defensively. That’s when we’ll get over the hump.”

On a personal level, Acy has begun to turn his season around. The backup center led the Nets in three-point shooting last season at 43.4 percent but has dropped to 33.8 this season. In the past five games, however, he has shot 10-for-18 (55.6 percent).

“We love Quincy,” Atkinson said recently. “We love his grit, his tenacity . . . He’s really the only big that stretches the floor for us right now. He shot the heck out of the ball last year. His shot is beautiful. We hope he catches fire. I think it would be a huge help for our offense.”

Atkinson theorized that Acy’s early-season shooting troubles were related to a summer recovering from left ankle surgery, and Acy agreed. He had surgery with three incisions to clean up bone spurs. “I guess some of my athleticism suffered and everything as far as my preparation with my shot,” he said. “I took a step back because I couldn’t jump all summer.”

Acy spent the down time working on his free-throw shooting and is hitting a career-high 81.6 percent from the line, but he wasn’t cleared to jump until late August and is just now regaining his shooting rhythm. He said his religious faith kept him strong and that Atkinson’s unwavering support was a big boost.

“He tells me to shoot the [expletive] ball,” Acy said with a smile. “If you’re going to stand in the paint, I’m going to shoot it and I’ll make you pay.”

New York Sports