INDIANAPOLIS — The impossible journey that began when general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson tackled the monumental rebuilding project the Nets faced in Brooklyn reached its playoff destination far sooner than anyone would have dared predict.
The Nets completed a road back-to-back sweep with a 108-96 victory over the Pacers on Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2015. They are tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference with the Magic, are assured of at least the seventh seed and can clinch the sixth spot with a win over the Heat at home on Wednesday because they own the tiebreaker with the Magic.
In the locker room, video captured the Nets chanting, “One, two, three, playoffs!”
After going 2-5 on a 17-day West Coast trip, then losing a couple of tough ones at home to Milwaukee and Toronto, the top two seeds in the East, Atkinson was especially gratified that the Nets won a road back-to-back for the first time since 2014 to get in.
“I’m just glad the way we did it — here against a tough Indiana team, on the road, on a back-to-back, which we’ve struggled with in the past,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful way to qualify for the playoffs.”
Describing the “jubilant” locker room, Atkinson added: “I told them, it’s the old story, no one believed we could do it. I think those are the most beautiful moments in sports.
“We’ve kind of proven everybody wrong, the predictions. Even their head coach, they proved me wrong. They’re much better than I thought they were going to be. I didn’t know that tightness until I got to know that group of guys in there. It’s just a great group of guys.”
The Nets came in knowing that Miami lost in Toronto on Sunday afternoon, meaning they needed one win in their final two games to qualify. They took control in the second quarter with an 11-0 run, including a trio of three-pointers from Joe Harris for a 48-36 lead. The Pacers never got closer than four the rest of the way.
Late in the fourth period, the Nets put together a 10-2 spurt, including six points from Caris LeVert, to push their lead to 105-87 with 7:25 left, and they coasted home.
D’Angelo Russell led the Nets (41-40) with 20 points, and they got 19 from Harris and 18 from LeVert. The Nets had a 52-33 rebounding advantage. The Pacers (47-34) got 17 points and 12 rebounds from Domantas Sabonis and 16 points from former Net Thaddeus Young.
Harris was one of the original building blocks plucked off the G League scrap heap by Marks and Atkinson in their first season, when he endured a 1-27 stretch at midseason. Asked when he believed the Nets could make the playoffs, Harris pointed to the eight-game losing streak after LeVert dislocated an ankle in November and how they responded with seven straight wins.
“I think the confidence in this locker room just kind of went to another level where we were beating some of the better teams in the league — both East and West,” Harris said. “We knew we could compete with anybody and we had that chip on our shoulder. We definitely earned getting to this point right here.”
No one had a rougher journey than LeVert, who was Marks’ initial first-round pick in 2016. He missed 42 games but fought his way back to rejoin the playoff push by early February. “This is what you dream about when you are a kid,” he said. “You dream about March Madness, you dream about the NBA playoffs. You want to be able to play for a championship, play for your city, play when it matters.”