SAN ANTONIO — When the Nets and Spurs took the floor Thursday night at AT&T Center, they looked like the personification of a yin and yang symbol, with the Nets wearing black uniforms with white numerals and the Spurs wearing white with black numerals.
The analogy is apt because Nets general manager Sean Marks grew up within the Spurs organization and has that as the template for the culture he has nurtured the past three seasons in Brooklyn.
Progress was slow and painful in Marks’ first two seasons with the Nets, but the development program he and coach Kenny Atkinson initiated finally has begun to pay off this season with the 28-24 record the Nets brought to San Antonio that matched their win total for all of last season. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich paid tribute to his protégé before the game.
“We stay in contact,” Popovich said of Marks, who did not make the trip. “He’s a great friend of the whole family. We’ve been rooting for his success and the success of their group since he went. It’s very positive and going in the right direction, and I couldn’t be more thrilled for him and the coaching staff and the group. It’s great.”
The Nets came in with a 15-game losing streak in San Antonio dating to 2002. They last won here in Game 2 of the 2003 NBA Finals.
Asked about that long stretch of futility, Atkinson said, “I think a lot of franchises have had trouble winning here, not just the Nets. I say it every time we come here, they’re one of the top organizations in professional sports.
“I know when we play these guys we learn something, we learn from watching how they play, we respect how they play. We’ve learned a lot from them.”
Like Marks, Atkinson can trace his own development in a roundabout way to his Spurs connections. Atkinson served as an assistant to Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta after Budenholzer left his job as a Spurs assistant for his first head-coaching assignment.
Asked if Budenholzer passed on what he learned at the knee of Popovich, Atkinson said: “He gave me a lot of recipes, but I’m not the cook. Pop is. I’ve probably screwed up a lot of recipes. I think Pop handed it to Bud, and Bud had it on his desk and I looked at the recipes.
“It’s hard if you haven’t been here, but I did learn a lot. There’s a lot of imitation and envy, but I learned a lot from Bud and I know how much Bud learned when he was here.”
The Nets came into Thursday night as one of the NBA’s hottest teams, with 20 wins over their past 26 games. But they were entering a difficult stretch after they faced the 30-22 Spurs. Up next are a visit to Orlando on Saturday to play a team they have beaten twice, and then home games next week against Milwaukee and Denver, two of the top teams in the Western Conference.
It’s a daunting stretch, especially for a team that recently lost 17.2-point scorer Spencer Dinwiddie to thumb surgery.
“We’ve had these stretches before and have fared decently and have fared decently on the road,” Atkinson said. “So I know we’re capable, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“We understand this is a big task before the All-Star break, and then post-All-Star we have a tough schedule. It'll be interesting to see how we fare against these guys.”