ORLANDO, Fla. — In January and February, it seemed there was no light at the end of the tunnel for the Nets. They were mired in an epic 1-27 slump that sent them to an unfathomable depth in the NBA standings. Their only victories were moral and unfulfilling — a strong three-point shooting night here, a good defensive effort there, a close-but-no-cigar finish.
Did anyone truly believe coach Kenny Atkinson when he preached a turnaround was coming?
“I don’t know; I’m not sure,” said point guard Jeremy Lin, who was sidelined by a hamstring injury for all but the last two losses in that dark span. “I just know that in the moment of that 1-27 stretch, it was like, ‘Let’s just try to get one right now.’
“Now, we’re going into games with expectations higher, expecting we should win this game. That mindset is such an important part of the battle.”
Lin’s minutes were limited in his first two games back after the All-Star break, but since Lin returned to a full-time role on March 1 in Sacramento, the Nets (19-59) have gone 10-10. Their 141-118 blowout Tuesday in Philadelphia ranks as their best performance of the season and gave them a season-high three-game winning streak before facing the Magic (27-51) Thursday night at Amway Center.
“I don’t think it’s just Jeremy,” Atkinson said of the transformation. “I think our habits are starting to kick in a little better. It’s us getting a little more familiar with each other, the system.
“But the one thing about Jeremy being back is it puts everybody else in their place. We had guys maybe not in the role that was right for them, maybe asking them to do a little too much. We just have more stability.”
It was all clicking against the 76ers as the Nets tied a franchise record with 81 first-half points, shot a season-high .516 from three-point range (16-for-31), shot a season-high .640 overall and recorded a season-high 36 assists. Nine Nets made at least one three-pointer, which seemed a reflection of all the work they have put into that skill.
“You look at the collection of guys, and we weren’t necessarily the biggest three-point shooters wherever else we were, but our staff and each other have instilled confidence in one another,” said center Brook Lopez, who has made 132 threes this season after making three in his first eight seasons. “I think it’s about opportunity and confidence. Those are two words I always come back to.”
For Lin, the Nets’ three-point display against the 76ers reflected something deeper — their commitment to the principles of Atkinson’s motion offense. “It’s easy to talk about the shooting, but I would say the way we got the shots was really beautiful to me,” Lin said. “It was just beautiful basketball, super unselfish.”
Shooting guard Randy Foye, who is in his 11th NBA season, said there’s no getting around the fact things fell into place only with Lin’s return to health. It allowed backups Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Whitehead, a rookie, to fill more comfortable roles with the second unit, which has excelled.
“From the beginning, Jeremy was a big part of what we were trying to do,” Foye said. “In this league, you need a veteran guy to run the show, just to be smart and to do things that younger guys don’t understand how to do yet. Isaiah is going to be a tremendous talent and Spencer has been really good for us, but you have to learn how to be a point guard in this league.
“When Jeremy came back and he got his feet under him, obviously, you can see that it changed a lot, especially for our shooters. It just made it easier for a lot of guys . . . We always have conversations among ourselves and say we wish everyone was this healthy December 15th. But we can’t go back and change anything. We need to move forward and try to be the best team we can be closing out this year.”