Two games remain before the All-Star showcase in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Nets have put themselves in position to start talking about a word coach Kenny Atkinson admittedly didn’t expect to be saying aloud this late in the season.
“I think it is time now to talk about that we’re in the mix to be in the playoffs, there’s no doubt about it. We can say that, I’ve been waiting to say that. I’ll say it right now,” Atkinson said after practice Sunday in Brooklyn. “It’s above expectations. I didn’t plan on being in this position. Credit to these guys.
"There are 20 games [actually 23] after the All-Star break. Is that the number? We’re in kind of money time now. How we go into the All-Star break and how we finish this thing. Like I said, I think there’s expectations now, because we put ourselves in the position.”
With a 2 1/2-game cushion on ninth-seeded Detroit in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, the sixth-seeded Nets (29-28) know they can’t afford many more results like Friday's 19-point home loss to lottery-bound Chicago.
Atkinson acknowledged that his team needs to “make one up” after “we stubbed our toe” against the Bulls, albeit one game after posting an impressive victory over Northwest Division-leading Denver two nights earlier. They will visit Toronto on Monday and Cleveland on Wednesday before the break.
“We have to get as much money as we can out of these two games, if possible,” Atkinson said. “We’ve done this well, and that was the frustrating thing about the Chicago game. It’s real different now. We can’t let these opportunities slip out of our hands.”
Caris LeVert (ankle) and Allen Crabbe (knee) returned to the rotation against the Bulls after lengthy injury absences. Atkinson would like to increase LeVert’s minutes beginning Monday against the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors (41-16) after the guard registered 11 points and five steals in 14-plus minutes in his first appearance since Nov. 12.
Some of those minutes could come at the expense of rookie Rodions Kurucs, who has slumped lately with a 25.4-percent shooting percentage (15-for-59) in his last seven appearances.
“I think he’s hitting the wall a little bit,” Atkinson said of Kurucs, who will participate in the Rising Stars game during All-Star Weekend. “To be expected, but for us to keep moving up, we need him to get back to being Rodi. It’s not just his shooting, it’s the steals and the rebounds and his energy and his activity. We’ve got to help him, too. It’s on us a little bit.
“But it’s part of the discussion. How do we maximize his talents and how do we integrate him with all the guys coming back? I played 11 [players] the other night and that hasn’t been our formula. By necessity we’ve been playing nine, sometimes eight. I don’t want to play eight, I think nine is my [ideal], 10 is pushing it and 11 is too much.”
Notes & quotes: DeMarre Carroll has “some soreness in his knee,” Atkinson said, and he’s been listed as questionable for Monday’s game. Jared Dudley (hamstring) is “getting closer,” but while Spencer Dinwiddie (right thumb surgery) did conditioning work and drills with his left hand after practice, there still is “no timetable,” Atkinson said.