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Nets are NBA’s biggest surprise entering All-Star Break... and Free Agency

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday night, the Brooklyn Nets were in the midst of a triple overtime game against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. It was their final game before the All-Star Break – a near must-win game that should’ve been easier than it was.

Wait, that last sentence on its own is something Brooklyn hasn’t heard in years. “Must win?” That’s for playoff teams, contenders!

Any critiques of the 2018-19 Nets really don’t mean very much in the grand scheme of things because they’ve already exceeded expectations. For the culture, though, and to avoid falling in purgatory, they needed to keep it going.

Sean Marks put it well in an interview with YES Network’s Michael Grady on January 7.

“No more moral victories. No more of these close losses. We’re tired of that. Obviously with the Caris injury, the next group had to try and figure out how to play together… Myself, along with Kenny, coaches, and also the players, we just don’t want to be satisfied. You can’t be satisfied that we’re close to a playoff spot, or just sneaking in there. We’ve got to continue to build. And, we have to continue to see how guys handle a slight bit of success because we can never be satisfied with a win here or there.”

Come back to the present day. You know. A month later and those Nets just barely escaped a loss against a team that’s trying to lose. Kevin Love (rest) and Tristan Thompson (foot) were both out. But there was something about those 63 minutes that brought the Nets back to life.

Back to game No.1.

Probably a game they would’ve lost.

1. Collin Sexton called Larry Nance Jr. out for a pick-and-roll. Caris LeVert let Sexton get too deep and the Nets went down by 12 with 3:33 left in the first half. They made a push to close out the quarter, but the Cavs pulled the lead back to 10 with seven minutes left in the third quarter.

The Nets just didn’t have it for most of the game, particularly during that stretch. It felt like something was missing. Coming up with defensive stops, setting good off-ball screens, finishing your cut – all things that correlate with heart and effort.

It felt like something they’re not used to missing.

2. Caris LeVert dislocated his foot on November 12. It was one of the ugliest and most painful scenes you’ll see in sports. The arena went dead silent, players were crying, and the emerging star just encountered what looked like a season-ending injury, at the least.

The Nets hit a wall. They went 2-10 over the next 12 games and found themselves fitting right into the “tank” conversation. They suffered through an eight-game losing streak during the run – two games where they blew a double-digit lead entering the fourth, and another where they blew a seven-point lead in 51 seconds.

They looked lost. Moving on.

  1. D’Angelo Russell hit a pair of three’s after missing nine of his first 10 shot attempts in a lethargic game against the Cavs. At that point, he was just 3-of-12 from the field, but he propelled the Nets on a 17-7 run and gave them the boost they needed to finally take the lead.

Despite the clutch shots, Atkinson benched Russell for a few minutes during crunch time in the fourth.

He later told reporters in a candid way, “I took him out a couple times, [told him] ‘Come on with the turnovers, you can do better’ and he said, ‘OK coach’ and we had our little conversation. It works both ways, give and take. He’s a genuinely good-hearted person and he’s coachable, so it makes it a lot easier for me.”

2. Russell asked head coach Kenny Atkinson to coach him the day he stepped in HSS Training Center in the summer of 2017. So, Kenny coached him. And hard.

One league source said at this time, “There’s no question about D’Angelo’s talent. It’s about how he reacts during times of adversity.”

Atkinson tested his mental strength by sitting him late in games this season. He tested him to become great, not good, but great. Brooklyn’s development staff (for guards), led by Jacque Vaughn and Pablo Prigioni, were right there in the trenches with DLo. Veterans like DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley tested him and led by example.

The Nets won 20 of their next 26 games, gaining a playoff spot and a few games up for the six seed. Russell led the Nets despite LeVert , Allen Crabbe and later, Spencer Dinwiddie all injured. He averaged 21 points and seven assists during the span that turned the Nets from a tanking 8-18 team to a 28-24 playoff team, now 30-29 entering the All-Star Break.

Russell will participate in his first NBA All-Star Game at just 22-years-old.

  1. The Nets made it to the second overtime before it started to kick in that they might actually lose this game. It would’ve been a three-game skid entering the break with two of three coming against bottom-five teams.

Jordan Clarkson put Cleveland up by one with 39 seconds left. The Nets failed to hit the ensuing shot and Cleveland had control. They missed and grabbed an offensive board, forcing Brooklyn to foul immediately and handing two free points to the Cavs with 3.8 seconds left.

Deflation.

Then, on what looked like miracle-like play, DeMarre Carroll faked a hand-off to Joe Harris and nailed a game-tying three as time expired, sending the game to triple overtime.

Russell took care of the rest in the third overtime and dropped 14 of Brooklyn’s 16 points, en route to a 148-139 victory. He hit the dagger three to put the Nets up 144-137 with 43.5 seconds left. He looks at Kenny Atkinson with an “I told you” look as he trots back on defense.

“I called one play for Joe [Harris] and he [Russell] waved me off, which it happens – I get it. And subsequently, he hit the shot,” said Atkinson.

2. It’s all been like a daze, in a good way. Nobody saw any of this coming. Nobody thought the Brooklyn Nets would be one of the hottest story lines at the All-Star Break. Nobody understood what they were building behind the 20-something-win seasons.

None of it seems real: LeVert returning after just two months, Russell’s All-Star campaign, Brooklyn’s heavy success... none of it. And while they don’t possess the same dominance as the 2001-2002 Jason Kidd Nets, they certainly possess similar traits in that they altered the league’s perception on who the Nets really are.

And as of right now, they’re a 30-win playoff team that’s shown they can hang with the best of them… and win.

Heading into the summer...

3. The Nets are confident they can land a big free agent this summer. Jimmy Butler reportedly had them on his list of four preferred destinations. Kristaps Porzingis, too. Don’t think the feeling isn’t mutual with other players around the league? Why wouldn’t it be?

Everything is there: the market, the city, the amenities, an owner willing to spend money, and perhaps most importantly, a competent front office and coaching staff with an established culture and foundation.

All they need(ed) to prove is that they’re capable of winning.

And as of right now, they’ve shown they are. You can argue it was tougher than it needed to be – just like the Cavs game – with all the injuries and inability to close out games early in the season. But they’ve overcome the adversity and made resilience turn into a key word to describe this underdog group.

Remember where they were around this time last year.

Who thought they’d even be in the conversation for the playoffs; for coveted free agents during one of the biggest summers in years?

Nobody.

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For individual standouts, my thread: