Nets must find next ‘level’ on road trip
Squander 18-point lead to Oklahoma City in opener of elongated trek
“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”
Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi’s oft-repeated quote sounded eerily akin to what Kenny Atkinson was saying about his Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night following a disappointing opener to their seven-game road trip.
“Listen, against a team like this I think you’ve gotta be close to perfect to beat them on the road here and [we] weren’t at that level,” Atkinson ceded after the Nets squandered a 17-point first-half lead en route to a 108-96 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in front of a sellout crowd of 18,203 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Having to play six playoff contenders, as well as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, over a two-and-a-half week stretch across three time zones is a daunting task for any team.
But Atkinson’s crew has overcome low expectations and a serious rash of injuries to key players throughout this turnaround campaign in our fair borough.
So, when the Nets (36-34) ran out to an early 42-25 cushion with just over five minutes remaining in the first half against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, it appeared Brooklyn had once again found a way to defy the odds.
However, once Oklahoma City turned up its game after shaving the deficit to 10 points at the half, the Nets were unable to keep up with one of the most dynamic offenses and stingiest defenses in the NBA.
Westbrook finished with 31 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his 26th triple-double of the season, and Paul George added 25 points as Oklahoma City (42-26) showed Brooklyn how one of the league’s elite teams responds to adversity.
“It’s a good lesson for this road trip, being able to handle the physicality when a team really turns it up like that,” Atkinson noted as the Nets prepared to pack their bags again for a back-to-back in Utah on Saturday night before visiting the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday.
“It’s on both sides of the ball,” Brooklyn’s third-year head coach added. “It’s taking care of the ball offensively and taking good shots. You’ve got to run your cuts a little better, you’ve got to screen a little better, everything’s got to be a little more perfect.”
Despite the loss, the Nets clung to their half-game lead over Detroit (34-33) for the No. 6 seed in the ongoing Eastern Conference playoff race and remain 4 ½ games in front of ninth-place Orlando, the first team on the outside looking in at the postseason picture.
But those leads might become more and more tenuous if Brooklyn doesn’t find that next level to its game and become “a little more perfect”, beginning this weekend.
“I think we were dominating the game the whole time and they just took off,” said Nets All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell after scoring 14 points and dishing out seven assists in the Nets’ first loss in five games.
“When they had a little cushion, they took off and we couldn’t get back from there,” he added. “I think that’s something you could learn from, just handling that adversity and weathering the storm better.”
Spencer Dinwiddie led Brooklyn with 25 points and Joe Harris added 13, but the Nets didn’t place any other players in double figures as Oklahoma City took away the paint after intermission and defended the perimeter well enough to limit Atkinson’s squad to 18 fourth-quarter points.
“They’re a well-seasoned ball club. They’ve been to the playoffs multiple times,” Dinwiddie said. “They have great players all around. They turned up the intensity, were able to force turnovers and obviously we didn’t get enough stops.”
Brooklyn still held a one-point, fourth-quarter lead at 83-82 when Dinwiddie splashed a 3-ball through the twine with 10:20 remaining in the regulation, but Westbrook spearheaded an ensuing 20-4 run that dimmed any hope of the Nets opening their most challenging stretch of the season with a victory.
“I think they’re the top-rated defensive team in the league I believe, one or two,” Atkinson said. “I think that they are an outstanding defensive team.
“That being said, globally we have not been good offensively since the All-Star break. So, we’re going to have to look at it. I think our decision-making’s got to be a little quicker.”
And a little more perfect if they hope to remain in prime playoff position come March 30, when they finally return to Downtown Brooklyn.
Nothing But Net: Though the emphasis on the importance of this road trip has been looming over the Nets for several weeks now, Brooklyn will not have it so easy once the elongated journey is completed. The Nets will play four of their final six games at home following the trip. But they will have to take on the likes of East playoff contenders like Boston, Toronto, Indiana, Miami and Milwaukee twice during that regular season-ending stretch.
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