The Brooklyn Nets clawed their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race with a newfound resilience that has carried them through setbacks.
The Brooklyn Nets had an identity early in the season, one that had carried over from their 28-54 campaign in 2017-18 in which their eight-victory improvement was one of the better steps forward in the NBA.
The Nets were that team opponents always praised for how hard they worked, how much they tried, but those comments almost always came from the coaches and players from better teams after they left with a win they had to work harder than expected to get.
But when Brooklyn’s brain trust of general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson talked in the offseason about having playoff aspirations, the reaction from the national talking heads was either complete silence or a few jokes about “the same old Nets.”
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Brooklyn got off to a decent start, winning six of their first 12 games before taking one on the chin in Oakland in early November. No shame in losing on the road to a team that’s won three of the last four Larry O’Brien trophies.
Disaster struck in the 14th game when third-year wing Caris LeVert, who had burst into the season as the Nets’ go-to scorer and the late-game closer they had lacked, went down with a gruesome dislocated right foot in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 12.
The Nets were 6-8 after that loss and went on to lose 10 of their next 12 to fall to 8-18. Four of those losses in rapid-fire succession were at home and came when the young team couldn’t hold onto large leads at home.
Between Nov. 25 and Dec. 5, the team blew a 20-point lead at Barclays Center in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, squandered an 11-point advantage in a loss to the Utah Jazz, couldn’t hold a 10-point lead in a game they eventually lost in double-overtime to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Then came the lowest moment. A 23-point lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder evaporated and a late 3-pointer by Paul George, who went supernova in a fourth quarter in which he personally outscored the entire Brooklyn squad by a 25-19 margin, sent the Nets reeling to their eighth straight loss.
They were 8-18. The Toronto Raptors, with the NBA’s best record, were next on the horizon.
The Nets had a double-digit lead against the Raptors, who came back to tie the game late in regulation. Kawhi Leonard missed a potential go-ahead shot late in regulation, as did Spencer Dinwiddle for the Nets.
In overtime, Jarrett Allen‘s layup gave Brooklyn a one-point lead with 1:04 to play and the Nets made the defensive plays they needed to escape with an overtime win.
That launched a seven-game winning streak and the current stretch in which the Nets have won 13 of their last 17.
They’re 21-22 now, in seventh place in the Eastern Conference after the Miami Heat (20-20) reclaimed sixth place Thursday night by stoning the red-hot Boston Celtics under a flurry of 3-pointers.
Brooklyn trails the Heat by a half-game, the same margin by which they lead the eighth-place Charlotte Hornets (19-21).
On Friday, the surging Nets head to Toronto to face the team against whom they launched this recent hot stretch. It comes after Brooklyn erased a 19-point deficit to blow out the Atlanta Hawks 116-100 on Wednesday.
After that win, the Nets are 15-14 since LeVert’s injury. Since then, they’ve lost Allen Crabbe and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for extended stretches, but did get back Treveon Graham, a bench piece who missed 37 of the first 39 games after injuring a hamstring.
Resilience has become the team’s key attribute over the last month or so. Atkinson noted that after the Atlanta win, as did Allen.
Atkinson talked of the team’s growing maturity on Wednesday, via NBA.com.
"“We’ve got a good group. I hate repeating this, but I don’t think we win that game last year or the year before. I thought we really locked down, showed a lot of maturity.Sometimes I think when that happens, when you give up 38 points (in the first quarter), you go haywire and I thought we did go a little haywire quite honestly. We took some bad shots.“We were all out of sorts and then I thought Ed Davis and that group came in and Treveon Graham and those guys gave us some stability. DeMarre (Carroll), too. I thought Jared (Dudley) was good. I thought the bench helped us.”"
Allen said the win over Atlanta was a benchmark, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post.
"“It says a lot. We came a long way. I don’t think in the beginning of the year we would have finished the game out like we did. But now we’ve grown, we play hard as a team, we play tougher and we’re showing we’ve improved a lot.”"
It’s a solid next step in the much-discussed culture that has been developed in Brooklyn by Marks and Atkinson.