Nets positioned to do ‘important things’ in 2019
Hold off Pelicans following record-setting first half at Barclays
For a few fleeting moments Wednesday night at Downtown’s Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets clung to an Eastern Conference playoff spot, marking the first time since the 2014-15 campaign that they were in such a position this late in a season.
But then the Detroit Pistons hung on for a win in Memphis, reclaiming possession of the eighth and final postseason spot in the East.
None of that really matters when you are only 39 games into the 82-game grind of an NBA campaign, but head coach Kenny Atkinson believes his Nets are poised to do “something important” in 2019 — namely, making a serious bid for the playoffs.
“I don’t want to get carried away, but I like our trajectory and I’m very pleased,” Atkinson said moments after the Nets hung on for a 126-121 victory over Anthony Davis and the visiting New Orleans Pelicans in front of 16,890 fans on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.
“We had a bunch of guys out and we’re still able to pull out some games,” added Atkinson. “Losing Caris [Levert] and Allen Crabbe and Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] and I just think, like I said before the game, we’re a deeper squad and we’re a better squad. We have a tough road ahead here, especially shorthanded. If we can weather this storm … until we’re fully healthy, maybe we can do something important.”
With LeVert (foot), Crabbe (knee) and Hollis-Jefferson (abductor) missing in action, the Nets still managed to put together their highest-scoring first half ever during the Brooklyn era, jumping out to a 73-58 advantage at the break.
Having squandered a seven-point lead in the final two minutes of a loss in New Orleans two months ago, however, Brooklyn knew it wouldn’t be easy to close Davis and the Pelicans out.
“Man, when you got a guy like Anthony Davis down there, it’s tough for us on the defensive end; it’s tough for us on the offensive end,” Nets guard D’Angelo Russell told the Associated Press after leading the Brooklyn attack with 22 points and a career high-tying 13 assists.
“You’ve just got to keep playing ‘next play at a time’ mentality and just being aggressive on all cylinders.”
Davis, back from a one-game absence due to illness, poured in 34 points and pulled down a career-best 26 rebounds, helping New Orleans shave the Nets’ advantage to seven points with just under five minutes to play.
That’s when Joe Harris splashed a 25-footer off a feed from Russell and grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Russell and put it back to give Brooklyn a 117-106 bulge with 3:30 remaining.
“Any one of us could have come up big and hit a bucket there,” noted Harris, who finished with 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including 3-of-4 from long range.
It’s hard to argue with the sharpshooter’s point, as Brooklyn placed seven players in double figures, including DeMarre Carroll (19 points), Spencer Dinwiddie (18), Shabazz Napier (12), Jarrett Allen and rookie Rodions Kurucs (10 points apiece).
The Nets’ bench outscored New Orleans backups by a whopping 55-5 count, continuing to display the type of next-man-up mentality that has helped this team jump back into playoff contention despite an 8-18 start and numerous key injuries.
“We’ve got a good group of guys. We’ve got a great voice from our veteran group. Young guys buy in, we listen,” said Russell.
“Just sticking with playing all 48 minutes. I know, for myself, I tend to get away from that sometimes, whatever it may be. Just sticking with it. Anytime can be your number and you’ve just got to be ready to make a play.”
Though they remained a half-game behind Detroit for that coveted postseason spot, the Nets know they have a long way to go to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, especially with a tough three-game road trip looming on the schedule.
The Nets will head to Memphis Friday night before embarking on a back-to-back set in Chicago and Boston on Sunday and Monday, respectively.
“I think you have to be realistic and you don’t obviously want to look ahead too much, but if you said that we were going to be in this position I think everybody would have been pleased,” said Harris.
“But now that we’re here, it’s all sort of a relative matter,” he added. “I think we’re looking at it that there are a lot of games that we really should have won. Three, four games in this position even bumps you up a couple more spots, so there’s a lot of season left, and we’ve got to keep playing the right way.”
Something Atkinson has instilled in this never-say-die unit that wants to avoid settling for a lottery pick even though it has control of its own first-round pick for the first time since 2013.
“Guys are hungry for opportunity,” Russell said. “When it’s presented to them, they take advantage of it. That’s what this league’s about.”
Nothing But Net: With LeVert not due back until after the All-Star break, the Nets were hoping Crabbe would be ready to go by now after missing 10 games with knee soreness. But the veteran small forward will likely be unavailable for at least another week. … The Nets’ biggest scoring output in a first half prior to Wednesday night was on Feb. 19, 2002, when the team was based in East Rutherford, N.J.