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Brooklyn Nets have taken next step: closing out games

On December 6, the Nets and Knicks both had 8-18 records, losing close games. Today, the Nets are 24-23. The Knicks 10-34. What changed? Anthony Puccio fills us in.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Atkinson walks into his post-game interview and lets out a huge sigh of relief after watching his team overcome a 21-point deficit against the Orlando Magic. It was the second time in three days that his team made an improbable late comeback –- something we probably would have called a “moral victory” a year back.

The Nets were involved in 50 games last season in which they were winning or losing by five points in the final five minutes of games last season. They only won 19 of the 50, a clear sign they couldn’t close games out.

Then, it trickled over into this season.

We wrote about how they “mastered the art of blowing games” after an eighth straight loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in early December -– a game they led by 18 entering the fourth. It was the second game during the losing streak that the Nets squandered a double-digit lead in the fourth, while blowing a game against Memphis where they led by seven with 51 seconds left.

The narrative at that point: At least they have their own pick.

But things started to change despite the loss of Caris LeVert, who had hit two-game winners earlier in the season. They dug out a last-second victory against the Toronto Raptors which sparked a seven-game win streak. Four of the seven games were won in the last seconds by five points or less.

They’re 16-5 since then and 14-14 for the season in situations where they’re leading or within five points or less with five minutes left in the game – 10-2 during the 21-game span. There are simply no words to describe what they’ve done these past two games against the Rockets and Magic.

The Rockets game was… Reggie Miller-esque.

Down eight with 1:02 remaining in the game, Spencer Dinwiddie scored nine straight points on three shots – the final one sending it to overtime. Then, the same thing happened in OT. They trailed by seven with a little over a minute remaining and finished on an 8-0 run – the game-winner coming off a Dinwiddie and-one.

It was the fifth time Dinwiddie scored a bucket to tie or take the lead in the final minute of a game.

“I don’t want to have a parade or anything, but that’s real big-time progress...these guys want more,” coach Kenny Atkinson said about the comeback victory, not even realizing what was in store next.

Then came the Magic game, where the two-headed snake rattled ... and struck.

The Nets trailed by as many as 21. They fought their way back into the single digits and continued to fight an uphill battle. They brought it within two when Dinwiddie hit a four-point play in the corner pocket off an in-bounds play. The Magic tied it, then D’Angelo Russell stepped back and nailed what would be the game-winning three-pointer.

It was their biggest comeback since 2011.

“We got a great group, man. We’ve been through so much, we’ve been on the down end of every game like that this year and we found a way to suck it up and move onto the next game. The basketball Gods are blessing us with being on the other end of that,” Russell told Michael Grady of YES after the game.

“Now, we’re getting wins and scraping for them. We’re doing everything we can to win them. They mean so much to us.”

For the Nets, closing out games has been the difference between being a lottery team and a playoff team. These past two games, however, showed the heart, the cohesiveness, yes the magic this Nets team possesses.

It’s beyond good defense or guard play or analytics.

Atkinson and the staff don’t see the development as a process that resets every year. He sees it as something they started when they first came here 2 ½ seasons ago. With that being said, there is only so much you can teach in late-game situations. Maybe the X’s and O’s. Adjustments and things like that are important.

At the end of the day, it comes down to things you can’t teach. You can’t teach heart, you can’t teach persistence, you can’t teach cohesiveness, you can’t teach resilience.

But they can be learned. And that’s what’s happening.

“I keep using the same word resilient, resilient group, resilient team and they really showed it tonight,” said Atkinson. “They [the players] were ecstatic.”