Nets have ‘long way to go’ to reach playoffs
Difficult post-break schedule looms as Brooklyn returns to action
The Brooklyn Nets have already surpassed last year’s win total with 23 games remaining on their regular-season slate.
They also enter this post All-Star break stretch sitting as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
They’ve overcome injuries to several key players thus far this season, including the recently returned Caris LeVert and the still-on-the-shelf Spencer Dinwiddie.
Brooklyn also boasts the reigning 3-Point Shootout champion Joe Harris and first-time All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell, who is enjoying a breakout campaign that has gone a long way toward legitimizing his No. 2 overall selection by the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2015.
None of it will matter much if the Nets (30-29) fail in their quest to grab the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2015.
“I’m glad we’re kind of ahead of those expectations right now,” said head coach Kenny Atkinson, who suffered through a 58-116 record through his first two campaigns at the helm here in Brooklyn before this year’s surprising turnaround.
“But I look at the schedule and I think it’s going to be a fight to be in the playoffs,” he added. “I think it’s going to be a down-to-the-wire type of thing.”
That schedule begins Thursday night here on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, where the Nets will host the Portland Trail Blazers in their first game since last weekend’s All-Star festivities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Brooklyn, which will play seven of its next 10 games at Barclays Center, where it boasts a 17-13 record thus far, will have to continue its recent home dominance if it hopes to survive a grueling seven-game road trip from March 13-28.
During their elongated trek across several time zones, the Nets will visit Oklahoma City, Utah, Sacramento, Los Angeles twice, Portland and Philadelphia.
They will try to hold off seventh-place Charlotte (27-30) and eighth-place Detroit and Miami (both 26-30) in the race for the final few postseason slots in the ongoing Eastern Conference playoff race.
Orlando (27-32), which sits in ninth place on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, is only three games behind Brooklyn, but dropped the season series to the Nets, 2-1, meaning Atkinson’s crew would have a head-to-head advantage in case of a tiebreaker.
The Nets still have two games remaining with the Hornets, one Saturday night in Charlotte and one March 1 at Barclays.
They also will visit Miami on March 2 and host the Pistons here on March 11.
Atkinson is not the least bit interested in discussing potential first-round playoff matchups or how his team stacks up against the rest of the East just yet.
“That’s how much respect I have for the teams we have to play and the schedule we have coming up,” he noted as the Nets returned to practice ahead of their showdown with the Blazers.
The Nets do hope to get healthier as they continue their playoff quest, possibly getting veteran power forward Jared Dudley (hamstring) back as soon as this weekend.
Also, Dinwiddie continues to work his way back from surgery on his right thumb earlier this month.
Atkinson was coy about a timetable regarding the Sixth Man of the Year candidate’s return, but Dinwiddie could be ready in time to help the Nets on their daunting seven-game trip next month.
The Nets would like nothing better than to cap this coming-of-age campaign with a playoff berth, something Barclays Center hasn’t played host to since Brooklyn was swept out of the opening round by top-seeded Atlanta four years ago.
But Atkinson’s team hasn’t sealed up anything yet — and doing so will be a major chore for a franchise that is still pursuing its first-ever NBA title.
“It’s not a done deal by anything,” he insisted. “We still have a long way to go.”
Nothing But Net: While rookie Rodions Kurucs and second-year center Jarrett Allen got some minutes in last Friday night’s Rising Stars Challenge, and Russell scored six points and handed out three assists during Team Giannis’ 178-164 loss to Team LeBron in Sunday’s All-Star Game, Harris stole the show in Charlotte on Saturday night. The sharpshooter extraordinaire, who has nailed just over 50 percent of his long-range bombs this season, edged former champion Steph Curry, 26-24, in the final round of the 3-Point Shootout, becoming the franchise’s first-ever champion of the event. Harris was, in his usual manner, humble in the aftermath of his nationally televised triumph over one of the best long-range shooters in NBA history.“Obviously it’s incredible,” Harris said after beating out nine competitors to hoist the trophy. “Steph is the greatest shooter of all time. Again, shooting off of the rack for a minute is not indicative of being a better shooter than Steph Curry. I don’t want anybody to get it twisted at all. He’s come in and won this thing [in 2015] and lost. He’s participated a number of different times. So, for me to come in my first time and to win obviously is quite a surreal experience.”
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