For some teams, an 8-13 record at the quarter pole of the NBA season might be disappointing, but for a Nets team coming off a 2-1 road trip minus two injured starters in victories at Memphis and Dallas, signs of progress are undeniable. It’s why coach Kenny Atkinson could joke about his team’s miserable 14 of 25 foul shooting in Wednesday’s 109-104 win over the Mavericks, even though it nearly cost the game.
“If you ask me about the free throws, I’m leaving,” Atkinson said upon arriving at the postgame interview in Dallas Wednesday night. Naturally, YES host Michael Grady responded, “So, about the free throws . . . ”
The laughter reflected an upbeat mood for a team that won only eight games before New Year’s Day last season on the way to the NBA’s worst record. But even without injured starters Allen Crabbe (sore lower back) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (sprained ankle), the Nets won games over teams with worse records and played a very competitive game in losing at Houston, which has the NBA’s best record.
Reflecting on how young players like Isaiah Whitehead, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and point guard Spencer Dinwiddie have stepped up, Atkinson said, “I feel like we’re coming together as a group. When you have guys out, I think everybody realizes that anybody can contribute. Isaiah we called up from the G League. Caris and Joe are getting more minutes. That’s when a team starts to gain confidence. To me, it breeds unity and more camaraderie. That’s how teams start to get good, so I’m excited about that.”
At the same time, Atkinson has gotten great leadership from veterans DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Booker. He called Carroll a “winner” and the “star of the game” for scoring 15 of his 22 points in the third quarter to help put the Nets in front of the Mavs for good. He credited Booker for “saving” the game with the offensive rebounds he got when the Nets missed crucial fourth-quarter foul shots.
“This road trip we’ve really been going in the right direction,” Carroll said. “Even in the Houston game, some of the young guys had significant minutes and they played the right way. This road trip has helped us grow. Now we’ve got to try to go home and get one against Atlanta.”
The Nets play the Hawks Saturday night at Barclays Center in the first game of a home-and-home set that continues Monday in Atlanta. Then, they travel to Mexico City for “home” games against the Thunder and Heat. If there’s one nagging problem they must address, it’s their 63.5 free throw percentage, which ranks 29th.
“We’re concerned,” Atkinson said. “I will say we’re working on it. I don’t know if we can get them in the gym [Thursday] morning. They get in at 3 a.m. I’m not sure we can get them in. That’s what you do in junior high, right? You get them in before school starts and you shoot 100 free throws. Listen, we’ve got good shooters, so it’s a little quirky right now.”
Humor comes more readily when you see all the hard work begin to pay off.