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Examining the Nets losing streak: What’s to like ... and what’s not

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Back to reality.

Less than two weeks ago, the Nets were 11-15 – 2.5 games out of a playoff spot. They were coming off a gutsy victory over the Washington Wizards at home, winning their fourth game in the last six.

The expectations were tempered from the start, thus the minor success they saw early has made it difficult to take a step back and look at the big picture of the situation.

The team is easy to root for with underdog players like Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson leading the depleted roster. And although DeMarre Carroll said the Nets weren’t looking at the standings, it was a little hard not to, trailing just two games back in the loss column.

But before you could blink, things regressed to the mean ... very mean. In the last four games, all losses, their scoring (96.8 points), field-goal defense (51.7 percent), defensive rating (115.1) and net rating (minus-15.0) are all dead last in the NBA. Dead Last. The collapse of team defense has been the most glaring. They went from tops in the NBA for the first five games of December to 30th the last four.

And that litany doesn’t take into account their mental mistakes, of which there were many.

Everybody is held accountable. And that’s where we are today. The Nets have lost four in a row, playing their worst basketball of the season ... after playing their best stretch of the season.

And so, the 2.5 games has turned into 5.5 games with no signs of D’Angelo Russell returning anytime soon. Next month seems like a good bet, but next month is next month. Meanwhile, their next three games are against Washington, Indiana and San Antonio.

The first 30 games of the season were typified in the latest loss, to Sacramento. They came back from 21 down in the second half, but missed four shots and turned the ball two times over in the final minute. Joe Harris and Caris LeVert helped lead the team on the comeback, but both were benched the final four minutes of the game.

The Knicks loss also had elements of their worst outings. New York played without Tim Hardaway Jr. Kristaps Porzingis left the game early with a knee injury. They couldn’t get stops late and execution down the stretch was poor. Moreover, they insisted on forcing the three when the Knicks were missing their best rim protector.

It was a game that young teams lose. You appreciate the never-quit attitude, but a loss is a loss. Kenny Atkinson threw himself under the bus or in the bucket after losing to the Kings.

“Our execution was not great — I’ll throw myself in that kind of bucket with the guys,” Atkinson said after the loss. “I could have done a better job at the end of the game. I always debate –we’re a team, when we have a chance to go, instead of taking a timeout, we want to go. That’s just our philosophy.”

Let’s not get this mixed up. Atkinson is working with very little right now. We’ve heard how they’re “better equipped” this year versus last, but after Lin’s injury, Russell’s injury and the Trevor Booker trade, it’s hard to really say that. At some point, Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas may make up for some of what’s been lost. And who knows what happens at the February 8 trade deadline, now only six weeks away.

Atkinson is doing his best with the minimal talent he has. More important, perhaps, is that his roster is imbalanced. He has a number of decent guards and wings, but has few bigs. It’s the downside of the “sign them all, let Kenny sort them out” philosophy.

He’s made some questionable decisions in the last couple of games, and he’s received a lot of flack for it. It’s easily forgotten that he lost one of his most consistent players in Booker for two projects, the better of whom may not play for a while as he recovers from Philly’s treatment of him. (FYI, the 76ers are 1-8 since the trade, the Nets 2-5.)

So, “better equipped” isn’t appropriate. Atkinson IS shorthanded, as he was in the beginning of the season, especially in the frontcourt. With Booker, their best rebounder gone, the Nets have suffered on the glass.

The coach won’t use it as an excuse.

“No, we are not shorthanded,” said Atkinson. “We have Quincy and Jarrett in there as our back up bigs and Rondae and Tyler, so we are not playing shorthanded there. I thought Quincy gave us some decent minutes. You know Jarrett is a young guy trying to learn this league, obviously that is a physical team – did some good things. I thought he had some big blocks in the second half. We got to get our rhythm in general. We have lost it these last four games.”

Many have questioned the decision to play Quincy Acy, who hasn’t played his best ball, but the Nets see things from an analytic perspective. The Nets are better when Acy plays at the five because it enables them to stretch the floor and execute the motion offense the way they practice.

Steve Lichtenstein wrote about it in his latest.

Unlike 19-year-old rookie center Jarrett Allen, Acy has to be guarded. That’s particularly important to Hollis-Jefferson. You can see the clogged toilet that is the Nets’ motion offense with an Allen/Hollis-Jefferson or Zeller/Hollis-Jefferson front line regain flow during Acy’s 99 minutes this season playing with Hollis-Jefferson. Brooklyn produces 118.3 points per 100 such possessions and sports a plus-18.6 net rating, miles better than the next-best big-man combo that has played as many minutes together.

There are plenty of reasons why things have gone south in the last four games... several places the fingers can be pointed at. Atkinson is the least of them. He’s still learning and he’s got an edge to him.

This four-game losing streak has been frustrating. Maybe the travel schedule since Mexico screwed them up. It has been brutal. Maybe teams are adjusting to the few weapons Brooklyn has. Maybe Atkinson should’ve called a timeout in the final minute of the Sacramento game.

No matter what you want to chalk it up to, this is a team playing without its two best players, one of whom is gone for the season. Despite the team-oriented mentality, we knew this team was headed wherever D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin were going to take them.

But that isn’t the case.

The reality is much different, but the plan remains the same. Throw the record out the window for a second and look at the bigger picture. There’s a foundation here and marginal NBA players like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris are turning into legitimate role players in this league. Young players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert are blossoming right, LeVert particularly since the loss of Russell. For the month of December, playing at the point, LeVert has averaged 12.9 points and 5.0 assists and shooting 37.1 percent from three. They have a coach that’s on the same boat as them.

There’s plenty to be happy about with this Nets team. This four-game losing skid is just making it hard to see. The looming question is whether these four games are an aberration or a preview of what happened in mid-season last year.