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Nets showing why teams can no longer take them lightly

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets gained street cred in Sunday’s loss to Golden State.

Prior to the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr spoke highly of the Nets, calling Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks transformative leaders for an organization, specifically citing culture change.

With Atkinson, he mentioned the energy and effort saying, “You can feel it when you play them.” They like to call that ‘grit’ around here. With Sean Marks, he mentioned how much he likes what he’s done despite “maybe having the worst hand to play with as a GM of anybody in the history of this league." (It’s also a subtle reminder that the league knew how bad things were under the previous regime.)

The Nets played without Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell then lost Trevor Booker to an ankle sprain early while Kevin Durant sat out for Golden State. Nobody truly expected the Nets to win this game and they didn’t. However, they gave the Warriors a game full until the very last minute.

It’s not something sudden. Go back to one of Russell’s first comments about the Nets following the big Laker trade. He told NetsDaily in the offseason something that resonates and should irk his teammates.

“We’ve struggled over the last few years in Brooklyn,” he said, choosing to cast himself as part of the organization. Then, he told the truth. “Teams are used to coming in and taking nights off,” he explained.

Prior to Marks and Atkinson’s arrivals, teams were used to walking into Brooklyn and … taking nights off. The Nets identity was, well, giving up. Once they went down, they stayed down. That started to change last season. The Nets got a rep that despite their obvious lack of talent, they had character and played hard every night.

What made D’Lo’s quote so intriguing was this: If anyone knows about what it’s like to take a night off in Brooklyn, it’s opposing players, obviously. (Russell proved this point the last two years, putting up games of 32 and 39 against the Nets.)

Russell wasn’t wrong in what he said. Changing it, however, goes back to the grit thing we’ve mentioned before, and how it fits into everything this culture and identity is shifting to. They are gaining street cred for that specific reason: good teams cannot come into Brooklyn and take a night off.

Ask Cleveland, who the Nets beat earlier this season with Russell and Lin both out and Spencer Dinwiddie taking over.

Ask Boston, the team with the best record in the NBA who found themselves down to the Nets more than once in the second half of their game last week.

Ask Golden State, the defending champs who the Nets let go up by 28 points with 3:40 left in the third quarter. Russell was out and quite frankly, the Nets looked like a team that didn’t belong in the same gym as Golden State.

“We were taken by the moment a bit. … They were frozen for some reason,” Atkinson said post-game. “[The Warriors] are a great team. Maybe that was it. But we were on our heels. That’s not us. That’s not how we play. I can’t explain what happened in the first half — why we came out so spiritless and [with a] lack of energy.”

But by the 2:38 mark of the fourth, the Nets were down by four. Stephen Curry had fouled out of the game and Dinwiddie and Allen Crabbe knew it was on them. Things got interesting, but the Warriors closed out the game and won by seven. Maybe it was the moment. The young Nets don’t have a lot of experience yet in big games, although it’s coming. Now, they just have to learn how to win.

The Nets were not pleased with their effort after the game. The idea of losing is unacceptable, but in the context of Brooklyn’s situation, it’s easy to see why fans could see this as a moral victory. That’s not the way the players see it. At least these players.

It just goes with the thing they called identity. They play hard until the buzzer sounds. There are games where there may be some slippage, but for the most part, these guys play extremely hard under Kenny Atkinson. If somebody goes down, it’s next man up, no self-pity. What’s the coach’s message?

“Play harder,” said Caris LeVert, with little hesitation.

And that’s what they did. And that’s why it’s a good sign because it shows growth; growth because the point of this season was to see improvement as a collective unit. Individual accolades are great but the Nets thrive when it’s a balanced attack.

It shows growth, as an organization, that there are no more excuses. Expectations have been tempered from the start. It’s all rationally driven, no forcing something that isn’t there. Instead, they work harder each day to make the next a little better. They know they may not have as much talent as the champs or the best team or LeBron but they’re going to compete on effort. They WILL squeeze some victories out based on effort alone.

It’s hard to celebrate, especially when you’re 6-10 and just lost. But it’s about the bigger picture. It’s about the future. It’s about these Brooklyn Nets showing that they are not to be taken lightly, no matter who’s playing, the opponent or where they play.

After all, isn’t that what street cred is?