As Martin Luther King Day dawned, the Nets were six games out of the playoffs with 40 to go, 11 games to go. It would seem that the post-season would be out of the picture, particularly since they aren’t on any sort of winning streak. They’re 4-6 in their last 10.
But don’t tell that to the Nets. They still quietly harbor hopes of turning it around, noting that arguably their best player, D’Angelo Russell, is days away from coming back and their two young bigs, Jahlil Okakor (22) and Jarrett Allen (19) are just starting to show what they can do.
Spencer Dinwiddie has been the most vocal about the possibility. In his post-game comments following controversial non-calls in the overtime loss to Toronto last week, Dinwiddie was quite clear about it.
“These close losses, when they stack up, two, three, four, five in a row, they change the tenor of a season,” said Dinwiddie. “Because it completely shifts the narrative of how the Nets organization, Nets basketball, is being played. Because if these close losses turn to wins, we’re close to .500 ball. We’re looking at the playoffs. There’s a different morale, a different vibe.”
Then. later in the week, the point guard, a bit calmer, cited a model for a big second half turnaround, last season’s Heat, who came within one game of making the playoffs following a disastrous start.
“Something like the Miami Heat last year, when they went on that run comes to mind,” said Dinwiddie. “Obviously you can’t guarantee anything like that, but you’d certainly hope that when healthy and we start to click and gain chemistry that we could do something of that nature, and push not just an improving season but have a really successful season.”
Indeed, you can’t guarantee anything like the Heat run. It was extraordinary. At the mid-way point, Miami was 11-30, 19 games below .500 and not far above the Nets. By season’s end, they were 41-41. As any Heat fan can tell you, if the Nets had beaten the Bulls in their final game, Miami would have made it. But they didn’t and the Bulls got into the playoffs because they held a 2-1 series tiebreaker with the Heat.
The Nets had their own second half run last season once Jeremy Lin returned from his hamstring injury. Brooklyn went 11-12 after March 1 and meshed well with Lin and Brook Lopez on the court.
Lin, of course, is out for the season and Lopez is in L.A. with the Lakers. But the Nets think that maybe, just maybe, DLo could fill that same role Lin took on ... and that their Twin Peaks, Allen and Okafor, could improve on the team’s biggest deficit, under the rim.
Russell still has to practice 5-on-5 and this being the Nets organization, don’t expect him to return until he’s had at least one and then there will be his slow return to the starting line-up. Still, they’re excited.
“Getting somebody as talented as D’Angelo back is going to be huge for our team, and it’s going to help us in the win column obviously because he’s a great talent and a great player,” said Dinwiddie. “Win column” ... get it?
Will they and Caris LeVert fit together once everyone is back?
“The goal is to get healthy and put everyone in,” Atkinson said last week in talking about Russell. “Now, when D’Angelo comes back, we’re going to have to figure out what that looks like . . . Do you play Spencer [Dinwiddie] and D’Angelo together? D’Angelo will come back progressively. I’m looking at what’s best for him. Is it best to start him? Definitely thinking about it, but no conclusions yet.”
Atkinson noted that it shouldn’t be too difficult an adjustment considering the original plan for the season was to have Russell and Lin play together. As for LeVert’s role, Atkinson said not to worry.
“You got Caris and you want to keep him in his comfort zone,” Atkinson told reporters last week. “It’s a good problem to have.”
The bigs are another “good problem.” At point point after the trade that brought Okafor to Brooklyn, Atkinson suggested he might play the two 6’11” bigs together. That hasn’t happened and, truth be told, integrating them with so few practices available was never going to be easy.
Still, everyone has to be encouraged by Okafor and Allen’s progress last week. Against Atlanta, Okafor had his breakout game with the Nets, scoring 17 points (but no rebounds) in 12 minutes, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Then, the next night vs. Washington, Allen had 16 points (and eight rebounds) in 28 minutes, his free throws and defense a big factor in a big comeback. Okafor barely played in that one.
Before the Hawks game, Atkinson urged patience with Okafor.
“I know everybody wants him to score 30 points and he wants to do it, but I thought he made the right plays,” Atkinson said, talking about Okafor’s 17-minute 0-fer in the Pistons blowout. “He’s understanding what we’re doing, and it’s just going to take time. I see the talent. I see the flashes. He’s got some stuff that other guys don’t have.
“He’s still in training-camp mode, still getting his conditioning better. And it’s improved twentyfold. Keep that going, and it will pay dividends. But I like his process right now. He wants to have a great game for us, and it will happen. I’m convinced because I see the talent. He’s been very voluntary and very willing . . . He’s going to really help us. I believe that.”
As for Allen, this week was a bit of a breakout for him as well.
“He’s showing he can play on a big stage. He’s blossoming defensively, he’s finishing off plays,” Dinwiddie said after Saturday’s loss. “And those free throws he was hitting in overtime were very big-time. For him to come in with the crowd roaring and everything to hit shots, we’re really proud of him, and we hope he continues to take those next steps.”
The Nets have a LOT to do before anyone outside the team mentions them and the “P-word” in serious conversation. Besides integrating Russell and Okafor and bringing Allen along, they have to learn how to close out games, actually put games in that win column. Russell should help. He likes the big stage. So should the experience of all those close games and comebacks. Still, this is a very young, very inexperienced team. with 10 of the 17 players are 25 or under. They rank 27th in average NBA experience at 3.5 years.
Still, there is one thing we have learned in the first half of the season. You can’t count these guys out ... ever.