Starting on Dec. 7 with a thrilling overtime win at home against Toronto, the Nets turned their season around during an eight-week stretch in which they went 20-6 to climb four games above .500 and were the hottest team in the NBA. That got them into the Eastern Conference playoff race and put them ahead of their developmental schedule as an organization in the estimation of coach Kenny Atkinson.
Since the end of January, the learning curve regarding what it takes to stay in playoff contention has grown much steeper for the Nets. After their 110-96 victory over the Celtics Saturday night at Barclay’s Center, they are 11-14 since their hot streak and clinging to seventh place. They played 14 games on the road in that span, welcomed back Caris LeVert from the injury list after he missed 42 games to recover from a dislocated ankle and then had to re-integrate Spencer Dinwiddie after a 14-game absence for thumb surgery.
Following a grueling double-overtime loss last Monday in Portland, Atkinson put a positive spin on it by talking to his team about the importance of learning from their mistakes as they go through a process the younger players are experiencing for the first time. “I just think it’s going to really help us in these upcoming games and, if we do make the playoffs, understanding how to close against these elite teams,” Atkinson said. “It’s a great learning experience. We learned a ton looking back on that Portland game and I think it will help us going forward.”
The Nets only went 2-5 on their daunting seven-game, cross-country road trip that ended Thursday in Philadelphia. With a little luck and a little better execution, Atkinson said, they might have won that battle in Portland and a game they lost to the Clippers on a buzzer-beater by Lou Williams.
So, there was growth, but it wasn’t reflected in the record. If the Nets manage to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to earn it. Coming off the road trip, the first five of their final six games all were against teams that are in the playoffs, and it’s possible the season finale at home against the eighth-place Heat could be a do-or-die situation for both teams.
Over their final 14 games of the season, the Nets figured to be underdogs in all but one or two games, but Atkinson embraced that challenge. “I told the guys before the road trip we’re not favored,” he said. “It’s no offense to me or them. Just doing your job is not enough. You have to go above and beyond to get these wins.
“It’s almost like we’ve got to pull some NCAA upsets. We’ve got to beat some teams we’re not supposed to beat. I think those guys know that, but they’ve done it all year. They’ve come out and beat some teams that were favored. We’ve got to do it again in these final games.”
Over the past three seasons under Atkinson, the Nets have grown accustomed to the underdog role while playing with a “never-say-die” attitude that has become their calling card. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Man, we feel like no matter who we’re playing or what game it is, we’re going to come out and compete,” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “So, to have that be said about us not being favored, it gives us that chip, that edge that a lot of us have because a lot of us were overlooked and wasn’t the guy or whatever, and it feels good.”
It’s a process, and each player has to learn how to navigate his own course through it.
The Nets’ schedule called for them to play four of the final six games home at Barclays Center, and Davis was hoping that would give them the edge they need to qualify.
“It means a lot,” Davis said. “We play better at home. We’ve got our fans, and just being in our comfort zone. Obviously, we don’t have to win all six. We just have to take it one game at a time and try to go .500 in these last six and it will take care of itself.”
At the same time, two of those games include a home-and-away set against the Bucks, who have the best record in the NBA and likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who suffered a sprained ankle on Thursday but said he would rather play through pain than miss games. At the moment, it’s uncertain whether the Nets will see Antetokounmpo Monday at Barclays Center or Saturday in Milwaukee.