As the seconds ticked down and it became apparent that this really was going to happen, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson’s eyes ever so briefly flickered over the scoreboard.
The glance was so quick, so stealthy, that it almost seemed as if Atkinson was afraid that if his eyes lingered too long, the scoreboard would prove to be a mirage, that it simply could not be true that his Nets had just dominated the talent-laden 76ers, 111-102, in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
The Nets, a team of overlooked and underappreciated players, are for real. Or at least they believe they are, which may very well be enough to make this one interesting first-round series.
This was the takeaway from Saturday’s stunner in which the Nets led by as many as 17 points and never let the game get closer than nine in the final period.
“We weren’t rattled,” Atkinson said when asked what he was most proud of. “You were afraid with this crowd and the team that they have that they were going to knock you out of the box quick. We took a couple of punches, took a couple of runs and kept our composure. That’s big progress for us.”
Big progress? This win was almost like skipping from seventh to 10th grade. The Nets won 28 games last season and 20 the season before that. Most people, including Atkinson, thought it would be at least one more year before they made the playoffs. Maybe two.
In other words, the Nets were supposed to be happy just to be here. And that, according to Ed Davis, may have been their great advantage.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” said Davis, who was such a disrupter on defense that he was plus-28 when on the floor Saturday. “We go out and we get swept? That’s what is supposed to happen. If we have the mindset of ‘I don’t care,’ sometimes that works in your favor.”
Indeed, few expected the Nets to come into Philadelphia and steal one. The 76ers have a star-heavy lineup that was supposed to be built for the postseason. The Nets? Three of their starters — Rodions Kurucs, Jarrett Allen and D’Angelo Russell — were playing in their first postseason game Saturday.
That difference underscores the different rebuilding paths the two teams took to get to this game.
Philadelphia famously went through “The Process,” tanking season after season in order to compile top draft picks and take Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons before trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
Because a previous regime had traded away their top picks, the Nets were forced to go a different route. This involved developing castoff free agents such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris and taking a chance on Russell, who had gotten a bad rap with the Lakers.
“Their rebuild is different,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “Both are incredibly difficult because we had to get some Ping-Pong balls right. Some we did, some we didn’t. Their version, you have to pay some people and hope they come out good.”
For both teams, it wasn’t easy. The 76ers lost an NBA-record 28 straight games over two seasons. The Nets went 1-27 during a dismal stretch in 2016-17, Atkinson’s first season.
After winning the first playoff game of his career, Atkinson was asked if, during those dark days, he dreamed of what it might be like to someday get this team to the postseason.
“You are going to get me emotional,” he said. “I know I have to stay humble, so I’m not going to celebrate. I’m sure I’m going to look back on it and be extremely happy how far we’ve come and that we’ve won our first playoff game. It’s cool. But they lost their first playoff game last year, too.
“I’m emotional about it. I’m happy about it. But for now, I’m going to put it in a closet or drawer for the rest of the season.”
No, it wasn’t a mirage.