For a team that’s missing their two best players, the Brooklyn Nets have appeared to partake in a number of ‘benchmark’ games this season.
We’ve seen them defeat the Cavaliers, spawning a numlity showings against high level competition. We’ve watched them push the Golden State Warriors. Although the defending NBA Champions didn’t have Kevin Durant that night, the Nets, again, were missing, you know, their starting backcourt.
And before winning their 10 of their last 13, the Thunder, with a healthy Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony (no Paul George) were upended by Caris LeVert and the Nets in Mexico, which snapped a three-game winning streak.
More recently, the Nets sent home a Minnesota Timberwolves team, who have three All-Star talents, thanks to some dude the Chicago Bulls waived, with no regard, about 14 months ago.
Is it time to make a move, another step, and not just get close to the good teams like the Celtics, but start beating them?
“I’ve been saying it for a while now that we want to make another step,” said Atkinson on Wednesday after taming the Timberwolves. “It’s two things, it’s beating really good teams, especially here at Barclays, with a great crowd, that’s important, and then our consistency doing it. Doing it a little more consistently over a long period of time. Those are two big things.”
Creating a winning culture by winning. The question is can they? From day one, Atkinson has wanted to see progress. He’s longed for some of the performances the Nets have put together, especially in recent games, like the aforementioned win over the T-Wolves this past Wednesday.
“It gives a boost to our confidence.”
One issue is balancing the roster. Sean Marks mantra is getting the best possible talent and let Kenny sort it out. Marks had commended the coaching staff for dealing with what he’s thrown them. Now, with the improvement of players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen plus the possible emergence of Jahlil Okafor and the return of D’Angelo Russell, Atkinson thinks he sees a way towards more winning.
“Yeah, there’s more talent, I keep saying it,” Atkinson proclaimed. “We’re deeper really. Our young guys have a year of experience under their belt and then we brought in more talent. We’re deeper, that’s really the bottom line – really proud of how the team’s progressing and just showing a resiliency that I felt that we didn’t have last year.”
At times, it’s more than just the victory. It’s about the team providing those glimpses of potential Atkinson witnesses first-hand in practices. It elevates his mood to a place where he’s genuinely excited and wants to share his thoughts on some Net scratching the surface of what he can truly become.
And his players want it, too, of course, and one reason is Atkinson.
“The key thing is just knowing coach Kenny has the confidence to put me in, in the fourth quarter, and I just wanted to make sure I did the best I can to not let him down,” Okafor said after the Celtics game. “When a coach believes in you, that speaks volumes.”
One big positive is the defense. They haven’t allowed an opponent to score 100 points in the last three games and have one of the league’s best defensive ratings. Over the last two weeks, the Nets have had a top five defense (4-5 record) holding the Wizards, Heat, Magic, Timberwolves and Celtics under 100.
There are, of course, limits. The Celtics game showed that. There was a need for a superstar who can put the game away ... before that gory end. Also, is DeMarre Carroll down for a while? How will LeVert, Dinwiddie and Russell play together? How much can Okafor give them and how soon? Will there be a trade that will add new player(s) but also new challenges to continuity.
Monday will be a test of Atkinson’s optimism. Enter the Toronto Raptors, who slugged the Nets in Brooklyn’s worst showing of the season on December 15. The Nets will be up against big-time NBA talent. Confidence and development is one thing. Skill is another.