Coming off consecutive home losses to the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference and 3-7 in their past 10 games, the Nets are caught in the vise of playoff pressure, and it might be choking the life out of what has been an overachieving season.
After losing to the Raptors on Wednesday night at Barclays Center, Kenny Atkinson rejected the notion that the Nets' youth and their relative lack of playoff experience are to blame for the stumbling finish.
“I don’t want to blame it on youth,” Atkinson said. “We’ve been together a while. We have a good handle on how we have to play … We just weren’t good enough.”
The Nets took Thursday off to gather themselves for a difficult finishing kick that includes a road back-to-back at top-seeded Milwaukee on Saturday and fifth-seeded Indiana on Sunday, followed by a home finale Wednesday against Miami, which is ninth by a half-game. Considering the Heat (38-40) also face a tough schedule that includes three of their final four on the road, that Nets-Heat game very well could be a play-in game for a playoff ticket. The Magic also are in the mix, tied with the Nets for the seventh spot at 39-40.
Spencer Dinwiddie insisted the Nets are focusing on themselves rather than scoreboard-watching. “In a lot of ways, we control our own destiny,” he said. “This isn’t a situation where, even if we win, we’ve still got to watch the scores and hope for this team or that team to lose. Our body of work has put us in a position to where, if we win games, we’ll be fine.”
That’s a big “if,” given the difficulty of the schedule, but D’Angelo Russell said, “We’ve got the best group to go get it. Three games left. I think we’ve got the pieces and the staff to prepare going into those games.”
Jared Dudley said Atkinson’s message to the team has been one of calm. “He’s not putting extra pressure on us or added pressure on himself,” he said. “His whole thing is we need to get the job done. You can watch film, and you see it. But sometimes you’ve got to learn on your own.”
One way or the other, the experience of battling down the stretch is going to be meaningful for the Nets, whether it’s their immediate future or for long-term growth.
“These are like playoff games, especially for us trying to get into it,” Dudley said. “The level of intensity and focus and mental preparation for us has to go to a whole other level. This is good. This is what a young group wants, needs, and it takes a while.
“Yeah, there’s pressure to get into the playoffs. This is a learning experience to see how we’re going to act. If we do well under pressure, we’ll be in the playoffs. If not, it will be a learning experience for next year.”
Notes & quotes: Allen Crabbe underwent successful arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Thursday. The Nets did not give a timetable for his return.