The Nets’ locker room is quiet. Players aren’t talking much and if they are, they want to head out as soon as they can. It’s their eighth loss in a row — this time a 19-point lead that was lost in the fourth quarter. It was just another epic collapse late. Fans started the talking the tank, while we wrote about how the Nets “Mastered the art of blowing games.”
I ask somebody close to the team if they’re deflated.
“Deflated? Nah. We got a game in two days.” Something so simple, yet so important. Staying the course, staying positive for one thing, but understanding this is a marathon, not a race. 82 games is a long season. They just can’t afford to fall into bad habits or negative thoughts.
Their record stood at 8-18 after Paul George ripped their hearts out for a third time in three weeks. Caris LeVert had just gotten injured and the losses kept mounting, but the Nets weren’t playing bad. They just couldn’t close out games.
But boy, how five games and a top-heavy Eastern Conference can change that narrative.
The issue wasn’t lack of talent, injuries or anything like that. The feeling was more that they lost so many games in similar fashion last year. The area of their game they needed to improve was late-game execution. They didn’t do it, but now they’re starting to.
A lot of little things have changed during this five-game span, and now we’re talking about how they’re only two games out of the eight seed … without one of their best players.
Start with the game flow.
They’ve let the game come to them, rather than forcing it. They’ve made adjustments which coincides with allowing game flow to dictate the tempo during the five-game win streak.
For starters, they’re taking what defense is giving them. They took 35 three-pointers per game during the first 26 games of the season, averaging a 35 percent clip in that span. During the five-game win streak, they’re taking four less and averaging 40 percent.
“We’ve been taking what the defense gives [us],” Kenny Atkinson said after the Nets defeated the Wizards for their fourth straight victory. “We still want the three’s, but we’re not saying, ‘Oh we have to have this many three’s tonight’ it’s really, ‘How’s the defense playing us?’ I’m thinking, ‘We got to make the right reads tonight.’”
So, there’s more of a balance. They’re making five more free throws on four more attempts in the five games, which might indicate they’re driving the ball more and accepting the mid-range game more, where they’re averaging three more mid-range shots.
Then, matching personnel with style of play.
When you have downhill players like Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell controlling the pick-and-roll, not to mention low-post players like Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis setting the picks, you have to be open to the mid-range game. It may not be analytically sound, but they’re usually more efficient shots and they open up the perimeter for guys like Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris.
Furthermore, it allows guys like Russell to use his strengths – fending off guys and pulling up in front of the three-point line.
“We keep hammering him. I’m all over him,” Atkinson said when he was asked about giving Russell the green light to keep driving and taking mid-range jumpers. “With D’Angelo, he’s a better than average mid-range shooter. The open ones we’re fine with him taking, it’s the contested ones we have an issue with him taking.”
Whatever they’re telling him is working. He’s averaging 18 points and eight assists on 42 percent shooting from deep in just 28 minutes per game. There’s been issues of him sitting late in games, but they’re winning and he’s been a crucial part of it.
Same goes for Spencer Dinwiddie, who’s averaging 24 points and seven assists during the win streak. He’s leading by example with his play and leading the Nets back towards relevancy. He and Russell are the anchors to this win streak. They’re showing how they can co-exist.
“I think just our commitment for wanting to see each other do better,” Russell said when he was asked about what’s changed during the win streak. “Like I said, everybody is aggressive at the appropriate time but still wanting to make that extra pass for the next guy, still having your teammates’ back on the defensive end, that rotation. We’re making those plays.”
Dinwiddie’s game has been notable of late. He signed the big contract, he’s a sixth man candidate and quite frankly, he’s showing why he can be an elite point guard in this league. The difference with him these past five games is that he’s playing in rhythm. He isn’t forcing his play and he knows he’s trusted to make the right decision down the stretch.
It’s a different ballgame when Dinwiddie plays downhill rather than settling for those hero ball-type fade away three’s. He’s long with a quick first step and his decision-making is typically good and it makes others better.
When teams begin blitzing him at half court late in games, Allen or Davis will set a high screen to give a little bit of separation. Teams might double Dinwiddie or simply switch. He’s become very good at backing out, evaluating the defender’s stance and taking it from there. Overplay? Drive to the hole. Underplay? Shot in your mouth.
Atkinson trusts him with the ball in his hands late in games and showed his appreciation after Dinwiddie scored 27 to help defeat the Wizards.
“He’s [been] outstanding all around, you definitely see the growth, the maturity and quite honestly leadership capabilities. He’s getting better every day,” said Atkinson.
How about some tweaks to the rotation?
Shabazz Napier is the new odd-man out in the rotation and Rodions Kurucs is the new guy in. Kurucs is the big surprise of the season thus far and the winning started when Atkinson increased his minutes.
Not saying he’s been the savior, but he’s absolutely been a difference maker. He’s active defensively and his length and ability to pump and drive make him a threat teams don’t expect. The Nets didn’t really have that at power forward before Rodi.
That isn’t all. How about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson subbing in late to defend Kawhi Leonard? RHJ forced Leonard to pass it out when the game was on the line and the Nets won. Same thing against the Knicks the following night. He was inserted for defensive purposes and he came up with a game-changing steal late.
And also, Davis getting minutes over Allen against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. Allen has struggled all season with stronger bigs, so Atkinson, for the first time of the season, yanked Allen for Davis in effort to cool off Embiid... which he did.
These are the little things. Rotational adjustments you expect game-by-game. We didn’t see that much before the win streak.
It’s a small sample size, but just two weeks ago we were tinkering with the idea of tanking and re-evaluating things. Now, we’re talking about playoff chances. The NBA is a long season and this can of course change quick, but for right now it’s worth enjoying the Nets’ chase towards relevancy.
They’ve shown they can hang with the best of them and it started with a late win against the Raptors. If they get their sixth straight against LeBron and the Lakers, a lot of people will be back on the Nets train.
… Especially since all the national writers will be in the building to watch it unfold.