Atkinson wants surging Nets to stay ‘humble’
Cautions against overconfidence following revenge win over Celtics
The question was loaded, and Kenny Atkinson refused to take the bait.
When asked if his surging Brooklyn Nets were playoff-bound and whether they had what it took to win a playoff series, the franchise’s third-year head coach pulled back the reins a bit on the expectations that are teeming around his red-hot team.
“We don’t really talk about the playoffs,” Atkinson revealed following Brooklyn’s 109-102 victory over the Kyrie Irving-less Boston Celtics on Monday night in front of 16,247 fans at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
“We’re taking it game by game,” he added after the Nets have gone 14-5 since dropping a season-high eight games in a row back in December. “To win a playoff series, that’s a whole other realm. I’m super cautious and I want our group to stay humble.”
And thus far, the Nets have.
Despite climbing into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, just one game behind Miami for the No. 6 seed, Brooklyn players are taking a wait-and-see approach to their unexpected surge.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t expecting more from themselves as the season crawls toward what should be an exhilarating race toward the postseason.
“We’re building off each win. It’s hard to win in this league,” insisted D’Angelo Russell after pouring in a team-high 34 points to go with seven assists and five rebounds.
“We’re scratching and clawing for each win. It’s coming down to a last shot or a last defensive stop or whatnot — we know that. So, every win is a good win for us. We’re building our confidence on it.”
While that confidence should be soaring when the Nets visit reigning MVP James Harden and the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night, Atkinson’s cautious approach is warranted.
Brooklyn (22-23) has yet to climb above the .500 mark this late in a season during Atkinson’s tenure, and is also just two games in front of ninth-place Orlando, a team it will visit Friday night.
“We’re playing games that mean something,” Atkinson noted. “That’s exciting for our development and our confidence. These guys think they can do something special.”
They already have if you look back on the previous two seasons and the start of this one.
After going a combined 48-116 during Atkinson’s first two years at the helm, Brooklyn began this campaign with an 8-18 mark and seemed incapable of overcoming an injury to fast-emerging guard Caris LeVert, who could return following the February All-Star break.
Winning all but five of its last 19 contests was hardly a legitimate goal following that putrid stretch, but the Nets have risen to the challenge of becoming better at closing out games, sticking to their assignments on the defensive end and pounding the boards.
In Monday’s win over Boston, just one week removed from suffering a 116-95 beatdown in Beantown, the Nets held the Celtics, albeit sans Irving, to 40 percent shooting, outrebounded Boston by a whopping 55-41 and put up a whopping 44 third-quarter points to put the perennial playoff contenders away.
“We came a long way,” second-year Nets center Jarrett Allen said following his 19-point, 12-rebound effort against Boston, which also featured four blocked shots.
“I don’t think in the beginning of the year we would have finished the game out like we did. But now we’ve grown, we play harder, we play tougher and we’re showing that we’ve improved a lot.”
Rookie Rodions Kurucs added 19 points, Joe Harris had 13 and DeMarre Carroll scored 10 points off the bench while corralling a career-best 14 rebounds for Brooklyn, which hadn’t beaten the Celtics in any of the previous 10 meetings.
“I watched our last game against them in Boston and I know it seemed like kind of a blowout, but I really thought, No. 1, they made a lot of tough shots on us in Boston and I thought we had a lot of good looks,” Atkinson said. “So that gave me personally a lot of confidence coming into this.”
And confidence going forward for his team as well, even if Atkinson chooses to temper it with a strong dose of caution and humility.
Nothing But Net: Already without LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (abductor), Allen Crabbe (sore knee), the Nets were also missing reserve point guard Shabazz Napier (hamstring) Monday night against the Celtics. “If you’d have told me we’d be in this position without those guys, I would say no way,” Atkinson said. “And that’s no discredit to anybody. I do think we’re deeper. But missing, you can argue, three starters, missing those guys and we’re still, even a win like tonight, it makes it kind of more special that we’re doing it with some really key, key players out and starters. It makes it extra special.” … Following their two-game trip through Houston and Orlando, the Nets will return to Brooklyn to kick off a three-game homestand next Monday against Sacramento. The Nets have won nine of their last 10 games at Barclays Center after beginning the season with a dismal 3-10 record at home.
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