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Nets' defense starting to turn the corner amid seven-game win streak

Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, left, and guard Spencer

Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, left, and guard Spencer Dinwiddie against the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 19, 2018. Photo Credit: AP/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO — There was a battle going down at the United Center on Wednesday evening.

Not only between the Nets and the Bulls, though the Nets’ 96-93 win was everything a battle can be — ugly, and exhausting, and ultimately a question of skill and will. But between Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, friends with a fundamental disagreement.

"First-team all-defense," Hollis-Jefferson suggested jokingly (sort of) about his own performance.

Dinwiddie countered, suggesting second-team as more accurate, explaining that the first team likely would have Draymond Green at the 3, Kawhi Leonard at the 4 and Andre Drummond is the 5.

That leaves his buddy on the second team.

It was, of course, a facetious argument —  possibly hammed up for reporters, but all in good fun. But it did, in the moment, create a snapshot of where the Nets were that night. They’re a team riding the longest active NBA win streak at seven games, the longest such win streak the franchise has seen since the move to Brooklyn. They’re enjoying the fruits of their labor, which in the Nets' case, has meant at times languishing at the hands of a challenging rebuild before this latest, giddy resurgence.

And on Wednesday, a new wrinkle: A team that is learning to defend the way it should in the critical moments down the stretch. Against the Bulls, it was Hollis-Jefferson, a menace on the interior defense, and Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen and Dinwiddie, whose steal with 2.4 seconds left all but sealed it.

That’s notable because, though the Nets are hot, they haven’t always been defensively sound, and certainly have struggled late in games. Before the game Wednesday, Kenny Atkinson said it was something that made him “a little nervous, that our defense has slipped a little.”

It was perhaps a well-founded concern: The Nets allowed 55.3-percent shooting to the Hawks, 54.4 to the Wizards, and 54.9 to the 76ers, all during their win streak. Despite enormous struggles, the Bulls would be a challenge in that category, and that seemed true enough at halftime, when the Nets were only up 40-39 against the worst team in the East.

But the Nets were able to get there by holding the Bulls to only 12 points in the second quarter, the least they’ve allowed to any team this season in any quarter. To close it out, they shut out Chicago in the final 3:03. Perhaps fittingly, after Harris’ floater finally put them ahead 94-93 with 43 seconds left, it was a defensive stand that brought the Nets home.

With 8.4 seconds to go, Chicago's Justin Holiday had the ball and set up a guard-guard screen with Kris Dunn. Heavy defense from Harris pressured Holiday, and Dinwiddie got his hand on the ball. Harris grabbed it, toppled to the floor and called timeout.

"One of the things that was causing us to lose those games is that we weren’t getting enough stops,” Dinwiddie said. “We knew as a team with the style of play we have and the talent that we have, we know eventually shots were going to fall at a high level. We had a little bit of a hot streak. You may not necessarily be able to count on that for 82 games, but one thing that can always be with you and will travel with you is your effort and your defense. Win a game where we both scored in the 90s is bigtime for a young group and shows our constant improvement.”

Crabbe still out. Allen Crabbe (knee) will sit out Friday's game against the Pacers, missing his fifth straight. Atkinson said Wednesday the Nets were looking to be cautious but they did not believe the injury to be serious.

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