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The dogfight approaches - Nets face tough schedule

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Sacramento Kings v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Nets did not play their best basketball going into the break, losing six of their last eight. The triple overtime win over Cleveland was emotional and D’Angelo Russell’s heroics made it appear to be a bigger win than it really was. After all, both Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson were out.

Now, comes what Kenny Atkinson describes as a “dogfight,” the remaining 23 games, less than a third of the season. And it’s neatly divided between opportunity at home and road trip to end all road trips. Bottom line, though, the Nets have the NBA’s third most difficult schedule the rest of the way.

“I’ve been saying … it’s going to be a dogfight,” Atkinson told reporters on Tuesday. “A lot of those teams are playing well. Orlando has really picked it up, Detroit has really picked it, Charlotte has a ton of experience with a veteran group.

“The Nets have to take care of their own business. You look at these games and keep an eye on them, but our sole focus has to be us continuing to play good ball, close out these last games in a positive fashion, and the results will take care of themselves.”

As Brian Lewis notes...

Thirteen of their final 23 games are against winning teams, including six of the seven on that marathon road swing. The Nets still have six games left against the four teams in hot pursuit, all of them within a single game of each other and within three of Brooklyn.

They do have a few advantages. The Hornets, the team just behind them in the seven seed, have the second toughest schedule going forward and have to play two more games than the Nets. The Heat and the Pistons play three more games.

They will play Charlotte and Miami twice, Detroit once, in the final stretch. Those games will be critical. The sleeper team may be the Magic. Like the Nets, they have only 23 games left and have been playing well. They’re on a five-game winning streak. Brooklyn and Orlando won’t play each other again.

The Nets do have another advantage. They’re getting healthy. Caris LeVert, who missed two and a half months, and Allen Crabbe, who missed a month and a half, are back and getting re-acclimated while Jared Dudley may very well be back this week. That leaves only Spencer Dinwiddie rehabbing. The Nets haven’t been this healthy all season.

What has to improve to give the Nets a good chance of making the playoffs for the first time in four years?

“I’ve seen some slippage in our defensive rebounding,” Atkinson said. “I remember earlier in the season, that was a huge problem in closing out games. We’re going to give our guys a heads-up.

“A big one continues to be turnovers. We’re 23rd in the league in turnover percentage. It really puts the brakes on us being a more efficient team, so we have to do a better job there. And we’re top 10 in getting to the rim. We’ve got to do a better job finishing when we get there. Those are big ones.”

The Nets are a young team. They have a few veterans like Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll and Dudley with experience in playoff runs. Those three have played a combined 116 post-season games. But as good as those guys have been on the court and in the locker room, a lot of the pressure will be on players who have never gotten close to the playoffs, like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen.

It’s going to be a test ... for them and for us.