During the postgame locker-room celebration after the Nets capped their improbable season by qualifying for the playoffs, coach Kenny Atkinson came clean. He told his players he didn’t think they were a playoff-caliber team at the beginning of the season. Then he praised their character and thanked them for proving him wrong.
With only Wednesday’s home finale against the Heat remaining, the 41-40 Nets are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and can slip no lower than seventh. Considering their 48-116 record in Atkinson’s first two seasons as they rebuilt from the basement up, a leap to playoff status seemed beyond reach, but he said Jared Dudley, Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll provided a wellspring of faith and guidance.
“It irked them that I didn’t talk about the playoffs,” Atkinson said. “They wanted it really bad. I think that helped elevate the group. It helped elevate me, too. When you’ve got the right characters and the right mix of guys, the coaching — forget that. It’s really about that in there that gets you to another level.”
Dudley and Davis were newcomers to the Nets. They had played elsewhere on winning teams, but even though they understood where the Nets were starting from, they saw plenty of young talent in the locker room.
“I think it was maybe November or December after a big win and we brought it in, and Ed said, ‘Playoffs,’ ” Dudley recalled. “That was early in the year before we even hit our stride or anything. You’ve got to give credit to Ed for really believing. Everyone believed, but it’s now speaking it into existence.
“Kenny was just keep at it, keep at it, keep grinding. Before this year, two losing seasons, so to be able to say you’re a playoff team, I don’t know if it had any merit, but with someone like Ed coming from Portland and winning and myself seeing the situation of Spencer, Caris and DLo, those are elite guards to have on one team to attack you every single night.”
Dudley was referring, of course, to Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and D’Angelo Russell, the 1-2-3 backcourt punch that carried the Nets all season. LeVert began the season as the go-to guy before dislocating his right ankle in November and missing 42 games. After the Nets endured an eight-game losing streak, Dinwiddie excelled during the seven-game winning streak that followed. Then Russell stepped up late in December and went to another level while earning All-Star honors.
Even though the Nets struggled through a 3-7 stretch before clinching by sweeping a road back-to-back Saturday at Milwaukee and Sunday at Indiana, Dudley insisted he always thought they would make the playoffs.
“With our guards, it’s very rare that Spencer, Caris and DLo are going to play bad for a week straight,” Dudley said. “They might have a bad game here or there, but they put so much pressure on you. If our role players like myself, [Treveon Graham] and DeMarre can hit some shots and space you out, that’s what you’ve seen these last couple games hitting those key threes. DLo, Caris and Spencer are going to hold up their end of the bargain most of the time. So it’s us role players doing the little stuff.”
Of those three guards, Dinwiddie got a bit of playoff experience when he was with Detroit, but it was in mop-up minutes rather than a regular role. The Nets picked him up two months into Atkinson’s first season, and he and three-point specialist Joe Harris are among the development projects who have grown into key players and can appreciate how far the Nets have come.
Asked about the postgame celebration in Indiana, Dinwiddie said, “We were really happy obviously, but it was still measured to an extent because we don’t want to just make the playoffs, we want to make some noise.”
Now that the Nets are in, their self-confidence has been validated. Asked when he first thought they could reach the playoffs, Dinwiddie raised his eyebrows and said, “We reported to camp on September 1. So . . . ”
As for Atkinson’s admission that the Nets far exceeded his expectations, Dinwiddie said, “He told me that when I told him last September 1, ‘We’re going to do it.’ He was like, ‘Ehhhh.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ”
And here they are.