No one can blame first-year Nets coach Kenny Atkinson for striving to stay positive in the face of the staggering adversity faced by a young team that is rebuilding, battling injury problems and riding a five-game losing streak in this 7-22 season. At the moment, the Nets are right where most predicted they would be — tied with Philadelphia for the worst record in the NBA.
A schedule that pitted the Nets against the last two NBA finalists just before Christmas served to underline the enormity of the task faced by Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks.
The Nets went from 16 points ahead of the Warriors at halftime to a 16-point loss at home Thursday night. Then they trailed the defending champion Cavaliers by 46 in the third quarter Friday night in Cleveland before rallying to close the final gap to 20 points.
Asked if a certain level of frustration might be setting in, Atkinson pointed to the garbage-time rally against the Cavs as evidence that no one was ready to quit.
“We have a great group of guys,” Atkinson said. “Those are the type of players Sean brought in and we brought in. They just keep working. If they stay together, we’re going to keep improving.”
There has been ample evidence of the Nets’ resilience to support that sentiment, but a competitive stretch of games after the return of point guard Jeremy Lin from a hamstring injury has given way to three straight blowout losses, including one in Toronto. Starting with the second half of the Golden State game and going to the point where the Nets trailed Cleveland by 46 — a span of 58:33 — the Nets were outscored 165-87. If that doesn’t take a mental toll, nothing will.
“A loss is a loss,” Lin said in Cleveland. “I’m not going to read too much into it. Every single team will do this during the course of an 82-game season. You just have to throw it away. That’s what Kenny was talking about. It’s not satisfying, but get rid of that, take some time to let our bodies and minds heal and clear, and get ready for our stretch after Christmas.”
In the losses to the Warriors and Cavaliers, turnovers were a huge problem for the Nets, who rank last in the NBA in that category. In the two games, they totaled 45 turnovers leading to 54 points by their opponents.
“A lot of it has just been on us and how careless we’ve been with the ball,” center Brook Lopez said in Cleveland. “Against this kind of team, they feed off turnovers like that. Defensively, they play with a lot of pressure and they play with their hands in the lanes. A lot of those careless, flippant passes, you can’t do that against them. You have to take care of the ball, make solid plays.”
Warriors forward Kevin Durant said his team knew it could turn the Nets over by increasing the defensive pressure. It appeared the Warriors and Cavs accomplished that by running extra defenders at the Nets’ three main ballhandlers: Lin, Lopez and Sean Kilpatrick. They can afford to help off other Nets because so many in the supporting cast are shooting poorly, especially from three-point range.
Atkinson wants his players to take open threes to stretch the defense and create room to drive. But Justin Hamilton is mired in a horrific three-point slump, shooting 2-for-29 in the past 11 games, including 0-for-17 the past six games. Other Nets struggling from three-point range include Isaiah Whitehead (.282 overall), Caris LeVert (.273), Anthony Bennett (.255), Trevor Booker (.250) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (.250).
When the Nets are hitting from three-point range, as they did in making nine of their first 18 against the Warriors, the offense works well. But from that point to the end of the Cavaliers game, the Nets made only 12 of 52 three-point attempts (.231), and the results reflected it.
Explaining the Nets’ offensive struggles from the perimeter, Lopez said, “Sometimes, when you play teams of this caliber with the guys they have, you get a bit tentative. You second-guess yourself, and you can’t do that. Teams like that rely on that. You have to be aggressive and try to play your normal game.”
The fear, of course, is that blowout losses will become the Nets’ normal game, and that sinking feeling must be resisted. “It’s tough when the losses keep piling up,” Lopez said. “But you have to keep a positive attitude. We have to rely on each other to keep our heads up and keep each other going.”