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No quit in improving Nets

Spencer Dinwiddie led the way with 25 points off the bench, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added 20, and Jarrett Allen had 14 points and 12 rebounds against the Knicks.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson #24 of the Nets reacts after

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson #24 of the Nets reacts after a teammate's three-pointer during the second quarter against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Now that the Nets finally control their own first-round draft pick for the first time in four years, some of their fans have expressed a strong sentiment via social media that they should tank this season for the chance to draft a top player such as Duke’s Zion Williamson. That idea gained momentum after budding Nets star Caris LeVert suffered a dislocated ankle that likely will sideline him at least until February.

But coach Kenny Atkinson made it clear that the word “tanking” is not in the Nets’ vocabulary. Then his team underlined that determination to win as many games as possible in their 112-104 victory over the Knicks Saturday night at the Garden. It marked the first time the Nets (10-18) have won the second game of a back-to-back set on the road since December 2015.

“With the tough losses we’ve had, I just love the spirit of this group,” Atkinson said. “They could have lost their confidence, lost their spirit, but they kept it going, and that’s hard through an losing streak.”

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 25 points off the bench and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had 20. Jarrett Allen had 14 points and 12 rebounds as  the Nets outrebounded the Knicks 45-40.

In the first two seasons under Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, the Nets won 20 and 28 games. “We’ve got to show progress,” Atkinson said  before the game. “We don’t want to go backwards. It’s got to be better.”

The Nets were 2-10 in the first 12 games without LeVert before snapping an eight-game losing streak with a 106-105 overtime win over the Raptors, who have the NBA’s best record, on Friday.

All that losing might contribute to the notion of tanking, but Atkinson said, “Doesn’t exist. Just doesn’t exist. It’s not in our conversation in our organization at all . . . Of course, the fans can speculate and have opinions of what’s best for the club. But this is what our ownership, Sean and I think is best for this team going forward. We need to establish a culture that we’re playing hard, competing every night and trying to win.”

Gesturing toward the Nets’ locker room, Atkinson added, “None of those guys in there want to sniff it, won’t talk tanking, don’t even want to hear that word. It’s like taboo. It doesn’t exist in their mentality.”

The Nets are projected to have more than $50 million in salary-cap space next July, when a deep pool of talented free agents will be available. Although the Nets aren’t in a position to attract top-end free agents such as Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, they expect to be more competitive if they can show signs of progress.

“If guys see you are improving and you have young guys that are playing well, that are getting better, that’s the most attractive thing,” Atkinson said. “They want to see a team that has potential to win big in the future.”

When LeVert was injured Nov. 23, the Nets were 6-8 and knew they faced a major setback. They were heartened by two road wins but then went into a tailspin defined by close losses.

“All of a sudden, we’re competing with elite teams,” Atkinson said. “So it was like, ‘Wait a second, we can do this without him.’ That continues to be the mindset. Now we miss his athleticism, we miss his spirit and we miss another really good player on our squad. But hoping to have him back soon.”

Atkinson offered no timetable for LeVert’s return but said, “I know he’s in the gym shooting. Progressing on schedule, and like I said before, looking forward to having him back.”

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