Brooklyn Nets: Belief emerges as young team’s biggest asset

Brooklyn Nets Spencer Dinwiddie D'Angelo Russell (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Spencer Dinwiddie D'Angelo Russell (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

The Brooklyn Nets have won 16 of their last 21 games to emerge as a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference … because they believed they could.

Belief in one’s self is a powerful thing. Belief in a collective, unifying principle takes that to a whole new level, a phenomenon the Brooklyn Nets have embodied and embraced as they’ve moved from also-ran to solid playoff contender.

The Nets have won three straight games, seven of their last nine and 16 of their last 21 as they have moved from 13th place in the Eastern Conference after their Dec. 5 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder to sole possession of sixth place heading into Monday’s Martin Luther King Day matinee at Barclays Center against the Sacramento Kings.

Early in the season, the Nets believed, but not when it mattered most. Brooklyn would play well enough to lead — even dominate — good teams, such as the Philadelphia 76ers and the Thunder, to put themselves in positions with huge leads (20 against the 76ers, 23 against OKC).

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Then the fourth quarter would become and that belief wavered. Players began to try to do too much, or force things that weren’t there. Even the simplest of things — such as getting a basketball inbounds on a sideline out-of-bounds play — became difficult.

After the brutal loss to the Thunder, the players held a video session sans coaches. They looked at the footage and saw the good, the bad and the ugly. They held themselves and their peers accountable. There was honesty in this.

The Nets followed that up with a gutty overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors. Toronto hammered away at Brooklyn, carving a 14-point deficit away and forcing overtime. But the Nets didn’t fold. Not this time.

A terrific defensive sequence at the end of overtime forced the ball out of the hands of Raptors star Kawhi Leonard. All-Star Kyle Lowry didn’t have a clean look, either, so it came down to Fred VanVleet to take the potential game-winner for Toronto.

Brooklyn had been tormented late in games by Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler and OKC’s Paul George, but against the Raptors made the plays at the key moments to ensure Leonard or Lowry weren’t going to beat them.

If VanVleet makes the shot, you tip your hat to the guy for making a big play in a key moment. But you also go forward knowing you made someone else step up to make a big play in a key moment rather than wilting in the face of a star player getting hot.

The Nets have played 14 games since the Oklahoma City loss in which they’ve led by at least 10 points. They’ve won every one of them, after splitting their first 16 games in the same situation.

And after winning just one of the first 17 games in which they trailed by at least 10 points, Brooklyn had won three of the last four games in which they’ve faced that scenario, including both games on a scintillating road trip to Houston and Orlando last week.

Belief manifests itself in ways large and small. Each player doing little extra things to help the team win games is one of those.

For the Brooklyn Nets, that belief has manifested itself with crisper offensive execution, better ball movement, a confidence that the open teammate is the best option on any particular trip down the floor.

Defensively, it shows up with players making the right reads, being in the right position to help while having the confidence that if they should make a misstep, a teammate will be there to cover the void.

That showed up on the final play of the game in Orlando on Friday night. After a screen, center Jarrett Allen found himself matched up on the perimeter with Magic guard Evan Fournier.

Allen moved his feet and stayed in front of Fournier as well as he could, but the quicker player eventually won that matchup. Fournier found space to drive into the lane.

Once there, however, he was met by DeMarre Carroll, who had filled into the lane when Allen switched out to the perimeter. Carroll doesn’t have nearly the rim-protecting ability that Allen possesses, but some resistance is better than none.

Carroll stepped up to challenge Fournier, who settled for a short floater in an attempt to tie the score. Carroll didn’t block the shot, but he did enough to make the attempt difficult for Fournier.

The shot clanged off the iron and the Nets had secured a win in a game in which they had once trailed by 21 points, the biggest comeback win for the team since moving to Brooklyn in 2012.

That belief comes through off the court as well. On Wednesday night, the team’s leading scorer, D’Angelo Russell, was a spectator down the stretch and in overtime, as Brooklyn came back not once, but twice, late in the clock to get a stunning 145-142 win over the Houston Rockets.

As Spencer Dinwiddie caught fire in the late going, scoring 18 of his team-high 33 points over the final 7½ minutes of the game, the first guy off the bench leading the cheers was none other than Russell.

Because belief is also about putting the team ahead of individual desires and dreams.

The Nets have challenges ahead — a seven-game road trip in March that includes six straight games against Western Conference playoff contenders and finished with their final meeting of the season with the 76ers looms as particularly daunting — but the seeds planted in early season failure have come to maturity that manifests itself in a steadfast resolve and a no-quit attitude.

Failure can break a team. But sometimes it can also be the fire that tempers the steel and makes it stronger.

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It comes down to a question of belief. The Brooklyn Nets never stopped believing and that has grown into a confidence borne of shared success on the heels of shared mistakes.