ATLANTA — If there’s one area in which the Nets’ inexperience has shown this season, it’s holding a lead, because they weren’t often in that position earlier this season. So after building a 22-point second-quarter lead Sunday afternoon at Philips Arena, the Nets fought themselves as much as the injury-riddled Hawks, allowing their cushion to shrink to five points in the second half.
It was touch-and-go, but the Nets held on for a 107-92 victory that was the first for coach Kenny Atkinson over his former Atlanta mentor, Mike Budenholzer, whose playoff-eligible team suffered its seventh straight loss.
Atkinson spent the previous four seasons as Budenholzer’s top assistant, but coming off a blowout loss Friday in Washington, the victory was significant to him for other reasons. “You’re not going to believe this, but I don’t think that way,” Atkinson said of beating Budenholzer. “It’s just really about our improvement. Our group is resilient. All year, after a bad loss, they’ve bounced back. I told them, we keep our habits in place and we keep doing it day after day and we’re seeing improvement.”
The Hawks’ point total was a season low for a Nets opponent, as was their .347 shooting percentage, and the Nets scored a season-high 31 points off 21 Atlanta turnovers.
Brook Lopez led the Nets (16-57) with 23 points. Jeremy Lin added 19 points and eight assists and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson overcame pregame illness to get 11 points and 13 rebounds. They also got 11 points from K.J. McDaniels and 10 from Spencer Dinwiddie off a bench that outscored Atlanta’s reserves 46-7.
The Hawks (37-36) were topped by Dennis Schroder’s 24 points. Dwight Howard had 19 points and 16 rebounds and Taurean Prince scored 17 points. Despite playing without injured starters Paul Millsap (knee), Thabo Sefolosha (groin) and Kent Bazemore (knee), they built a 30-13 advantage in second-chance points.
Relying primarily on their second unit, the Nets went on an extended 33-5 run to build a 43-21 lead midway in the second quarter. Backup point guard Dinwiddie scored nine points in that span, including a four-point play at the end of the opening period.
“I think we just came out with energy and played with a lot of effort and kind of blitzed them a little bit,” Dinwiddie said. “We forced a couple turnovers, and they had a couple of wacky turnovers. When you turn the tide, the basketball gods sometimes reward you. Coupled with the turnovers and us getting good shots, we were able to make that run.”
The Hawks responded with a 27-12 run that included 14 second-chance points to end the first half with a seven-point deficit, and they cut it to five at the start of the third period. Four times the Nets pushed the lead to double digits only to see it drop to single digits, but Lin and Lopez totaled 15 fourth-quarter points to seal the win.
“I don’t want to say that earlier in the season we would have folded, but I don’t think we would have done a great job of holding on to our composure the way we did,” Lopez said. “That shows the growth and how much we’ve improved throughout the season mentally and in the intangible aspects of the game.”
After wandering in the desert most of this season, the Nets are 7-8 in March and 6-6 in their past 12 games, tangible proof of progress. “I think it’s huge that they see it and they feel it,” Atkinson said of his players. “I was telling them we were improving, but they look at [losses], and being players, they don’t believe you. So it’s nice to back it up with a few wins. That gives them a little more belief in what we’re doing.”