Nets continue to ‘progress’ in win over Denver
Surpassing last season’s win total with 26 games remaining on the schedule is an impressive accomplishment for the Brooklyn Nets.
But according to newly minted first-time All-Star D’Angelo Russell, you haven’t seen anything yet from this playoff-hopeful unit.
“We’re not really looking to [last season’s win total] or comparing ourselves to it,” Russell noted after scoring 27 points and handing out 11 assists in Brooklyn’s 135-130 victory over the visiting Denver Nuggets Wednesday night in front of 14,516 fans at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
“We’re on something bigger than that,” Russell emphasized. “[We’re] trying to do something special with this group.”
Russell’s latest brilliant performance, which featured a 6-of-9 shooting effort from 3-point range, helped the Nets (29-27) end a three-game slide while fortifying the team’s position as the No. 6 seed in the ongoing Eastern Conference playoff race.
After going a league-worst 20-62 during head coach Kenny Atkinson’s first season, the Nets won 28 games last year and were expected to make small strides during this campaign heading into the all-important summer of 2019.
That’s when Brooklyn will have control of its first-round pick for the first time in six years and a boatload of cap space to hurl dollars at a list of prominent free agents.
However, the Nets have been buoyed by general manager Sean Marks’ shrewd moves and free-agent pickups, as well as Atkinson’s penchant for player development, finding themselves in the thick of their first real run toward the postseason since the 2014-15 season.
“I think it’s a sign of real progress. It’s a sign that we’re a little ahead of schedule,” said Atkinson of the Nets’ unexpected rise into contention.
“I don’t want to get too excited because I look at the schedule for the rest of the year, but this was one of those games I looked at the schedule and said, ‘This is gonna be a tough one to get.’ But, I’m proud of the guys, proud of the organization. We’ve reached this victory mark this early — it’s a sign of real progress.”
The Nuggets arrived in Brooklyn with the second-best record in the Western Conference, just a half-game behind defending two-time NBA champion Golden State.
They also blew the doors off the Nets’ defense in the opening 12 minutes, carrying a 35-30 lead into the second quarter.
But Brooklyn, bolstered by the return of sharp-shooters Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe, took over thereafter, racing to its 10th win in 11 games on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.
Harris scored 17 points after missing Monday’s loss to Milwaukee with a sore hip, and Crabbe, playing for the first time since Dec. 12 due to a knee injury, added five points in 13 minutes off the bench as the Nets shot a blistering 19-of-34 from 3-point range.
“It felt good to be out there with the team again, just to get up and down the court in a real NBA game again,” said Crabbe, who missed out on most of the Nets’ resurrection from an 8-18 start to the season.
“It felt good. I came back and we beat a tough contender from the West.”
DeMarre Carroll amassed 18 points and 10 rebounds and reserve guard Shabazz Napier posted his first career double-double with 10 points and a career-best 11 assists for Brooklyn, which is scheduled to host Chicago Friday night in the finale of a three-game homestand.
“We broke out of our shooting slump. I think that was evident,” Atkinson said two nights after watching his team go a dismal 5-of-42 from long range against Bucks.
“We really shot the heck out of the ball.”
As did the Nuggets, who went 50-of-99 from the floor overall, only to find themselves down by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter before making a late run that ultimately fell short.
“Obviously, any time you have a game like we did the last outing where we struggled to shoot the ball, it feels good once you start seeing them go in,” said Harris, who will represent Brooklyn in next week’s All-Star 3-Point Shootout in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“And then shooting is contagious, so once one guy gets it rolling, it seemed like everybody else was able to find a rhythm and get some good confidence.”
Treveon Graham scored 16 points, and Jarrett Allen added 15 for the Nets, who could be getting Caris LeVert back in the lineup soon as the versatile guard continues to practice with the team’s G-League affiliate on Long Island.
LeVert, out since November with a broken foot, could provide yet another boost to a Nets team that has already overcome countless injuries to key players this year.
While the rest of the NBA scrambles toward Thursday’s afternoon trade deadline, the Nets are simply trying to get healthy enough to make sure there will be playoff basketball in Brooklyn for the first time in four years.
“I think we all understand what we can do,” said Crabbe. “We know that we can compete with any team. I think we’re changing that perception about us … everybody has an idea that we mean business.”
Nothing But Net: After hosting the Bulls on Friday, the Nets will leave Brooklyn for their final two-game road trip prior to the All-Star break, making a stop in Toronto on Monday before visiting Cleveland on Wednesday ahead of their eight-day hiatus.
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