It’s 11:18 a.m. on a regular Sunday in late March, Kenny Atkinson walks up to the podium for his pre-game press conference. His Nets are facing the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers less than two hours away.
He sits at the podium, scans the room, then says the following …
“You guys who only come when LeBron comes to town, you guys can all leave right now,” he delivered, deadpan with a hint of a smirk. (Rim shot?)
It was one of the few highlights in your typical pre-game address for an NBA game in late March for a team, the Nets in this case, whose season is long gone. With nine games left, the Nets don’t view it that way, said Atkinson. there’s still wins to be had and improvements to be made.
On those improvements, an obvious focal point is D’Angelo Russell, who Atkinson said he sees as a 1 (point guard) who can definitely play the 2 (shooting guard).
“He can do both but (I) primarily see him as a 1 because of his elite court vision,” Atkinson offered of Russell. “Excellent pick-and-roll player. Against Toronto (on Friday; Brooklyn lost 116-112) I felt like he got in the lane a bunch. They didn’t all go down but I think he’s improved his shot selection and on the defensive end he’s improving game by game. As he gets stronger, and keeps working on his body, and moving a little better, he’s going to be better defensively as we move on.”
As for the game itself against the Cavs, who are currently 43-29 and hanging on to the third seed in the East (and the sixth pick in the draft ... thank you, Billy King) Atkinson says combating them begins with transition defense.
“I think in all the games we’ve played they’ve had us spinning around in transition,” he said. “They run to the arc, they run to the three-point line, so they figure out that puzzle. Harp back to that last game in Cleveland, I felt we were one rebound away from winning that game. Again, 13 or 14 offensive rebounds, we’re gonna have to find a way to rebound,” he added, referencing Brooklyn’s 129-123 loss at Cleveland on February 27.
Atkinson also mentioned keeping free throws down is another key to the game and spoke as well of the importance of getting a win over a team like Cleveland, who the Nets actually defeated back on October 25.
Of course, at 23-50, we’re sure that the Nets would settle for a win over Loyola-Chicago (hi, Milton Doyle) at this point.
“Anytime we get one it’s a good thing,” said Atkinson. “It boosts our morale; it confirms what we’re doing – I felt like we played really well in Toronto and you don’t get over the hump there’s that frustration. There’s belief in our guys, but you want confirmation. We’re really making that jump, and when you don’t get the ‘W’ it just leads to a tiny bit of doubt – I don’t care who we’re playing, 1-29 in this league, it doesn’t really matter. These are the fun games to play because you really have nothing to lose.”
And Cleveland is still playing for both playoff and draft position ... because beating the Nets will improve their both.
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