On the surface, it would seem the Nets have little chance when they meet the defending NBA champion Warriors on Sunday evening at Barclays Center, but that’s what any sane person would have said before the Nets upset the reigning Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers earlier this season.
They will catch the Warriors in the second game of a back-to-back after Golden State rallied to beat Philadelphia on Saturday, and the Nets are coming off their most dominant win of the season, having beaten Utah on Friday.
Point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who has asserted himself in the starting role after injuries that sidelined Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell, said the Nets’ win over Utah in a game they led comfortably during the final 41:04 was a step forward.
“Any time you hold a double-digit lead basically the whole game, it shows you where you can be,” Dinwiddie said. “It gives you something to strive for.”
But Dinwiddie, who became the first player in Nets history to score 25 points, make six three-pointers, dish out eight assists and commit no turnovers in the same game, had to smile when asked about the challenge the Warriors represent with the inside-outside combination of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
“We’re going to try to score on one of the better defenses in the league and we’re going to try to stop one of the best offenses of all time,” he said. “Any time you go up against champions, it’s a great test. These are the fun games, the games you really get to test your mettle. So we’re excited.”
Dinwiddie has earned lavish praise for his efficiency running the Nets’ offense. In his past two games against the Celtics and Jazz, he totaled 19 assists and one turnover. But coach Kenny Atkinson is especially pleased that he has become an effective defender because of greatly improved strength.
“When we first got him, he was pretty frail,” Atkinson said. “He’s become a much stronger athlete, which has helped him with his confidence. When we first got him, I’m not sure aggressiveness is the first word I would use, but now he’s an aggressive, confident guy . . . and he’s definitely got the intelligence, the IQ. I love that he’s doing it on both ends. That’s tough in our league, but he’s got the size. He’s 6-6, not 5-8. It’s a lot of responsibility for him.”
Covering Curry is the ultimate challenge for a perimeter defender, and Dinwiddie credited the Nets’ performance team with his improved conditioning and greater strength. He said the Nets must “follow the game plan” against the Warriors, which means a reliance on team defense.
“With anybody, especially with great scorers, there has to be some level of help,” Dinwiddie said. “Obviously, you have to pick [Curry] up a lot further out than most people and be cognizant of him off the ball because he’s a great mover off the ball. His gravity that he creates on offense is second to none, but like I said, you’ve got to stick to your principles. Boston got a win [over the Warriors] by doing that. That’s what we’re looking to try to do.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Nets’ undersized 6-7 power forward, faces a similar task against Durant but can utilize his speed and long arms to offset his much taller opponent.
“As far as KD, you have to compete, make everything he gets extremely hard because he’s a phenomenal basketball player,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “He’s a scoring champion, so it’s our job to come out and make everything tough. He makes tough shots all the time. That’s his game. So we’ll live with those fadeaways and step-backs, but make sure you make him work for every point.”
Though the Warriors took an admirable 11-4 record into Saturday night’s game against the Piston, they had lost twice as many times this season than after 15 games in 2016-17, And they come to Barclays on the heels of a 92-88 loss to the Celtics. Their losses and record (through Friday) of teams that beat them:
Rockets (12-4) 122-121
Grizzlies (7-7) 111-101
Pistons (10-5) 115-107
Celtics (14-2) 92-88