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Nets must remain desperate in La-La Land

Visit Lakers Friday night in next stop on seven-game road trip

March 21, 2019 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Fresh off his career-best performance in Sacramento, D’Angelo Russell and the Nets hope to go roaring into Los Angeles when they visit the Lakers at Staples Center Friday night. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

After suffering three straight losses to begin this critical seven-game road trip, the Brooklyn Nets knew they had to stop the bleeding in Sacramento Tuesday night.

Little did they know that it would take the highest-scoring individual performance during the Brooklyn era and one of the largest comebacks in NBA history to do so.

“We knew going into the game, win by any means,” Nets All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell intimated moments after pouring in 27 of his career-high 44 points over the final 12 minutes to help Brooklyn overcome a 25-point, fourth-quarter deficit against the Kings.

“That was the key to the game. Do whatever you got to do to win,” Russell added.

That must remain the Nets’ mantra during these last nine regular-season games, beginning with Friday night’s tilt in Los Angeles against the Lakers, who may or may not have the services of LeBron James after the superstar forward missed Tuesday night’s game in Milwaukee with a sore left groin.

As of Thursday afternoon, Brooklyn (37-36) held a one-game lead over eighth-place Miami and was only two-and-a-half games in front of ninth-place Orlando, the first team on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

With stops scheduled in Portland on Monday night and Philadelphia next Thursday, the Nets must remain desperate in pursuit of picking up as many wins as they can down the stretch if they hope to end their three-year postseason drought.

Following an 8-18 start to the campaign, it was hard to envision Brooklyn making a serious bid for the playoffs in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s third season at the helm, especially after the team had gone a combined 41-123 over his first two campaigns.

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But buoyed by the emergence of Russell, who has averaged more than 22 points and seven assists per game since early December, the Nets have gone on a 29-18 run over the past three-and-a-half months.

Brooklyn blossoming into a contending team in the East was as unexpected as Tuesday night’s epic comeback in Sacramento, where the Nets were down by as many as 28 points late in the third quarter before becoming just the fourth NBA squad since 1955 to overcome a 25-point deficit in the final period.

“This game kind of sums up our year,” noted veteran Nets forward Jared Dudley, who piled up 14 points off the bench during Brooklyn’s unexpected late push.

“Rollercoaster up and down, finishing high,” he added. “We need some wins to get into these playoffs, so this was a big win for us.”

It won’t seem nearly as big if the Nets don’t find a way to beat the Lakers (31-40), one of the league’s biggest disappointments following the acquisition of James, who has appeared in each of the last eight NBA Finals with Miami and Cleveland.

The Nets hope to see LeBron James well-dressed and on the bench Friday night when they visit the Los Angeles Lakers. James sat out Tuesday night’s game in Milwaukee with a sore left groin and could be out of action again when Brooklyn invades La-La Land. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
The Nets hope to see LeBron James well-dressed and on the bench Friday night when they visit the Los Angeles Lakers. James sat out Tuesday night’s game in Milwaukee with a sore left groin and could be out of action again when Brooklyn invades La-La Land. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

If James’ tweak of his left groin is significant enough to keep him on the bench again Friday night, Brooklyn will have no excuse if it loses to a Los Angeles squad which is the only team on this ongoing elongated trek through three time zones that is not in playoff contention.

Russell, a Laker during his first two seasons in the league before being shipped off to Brooklyn two summers ago, along with some questions regarding his leadership skills via Lakers Team President Magic Johnson, will doubtlessly be primed and ready to flash his All-Star form against his former team.

This renaissance season for the 23-year-old Louisville, Kentucky native and former No. 2 overall pick has had more to do with Russell maturing and accepting coaching advice than the emergence of his raw talent, which was never in question.

By his own admission, Russell was less mature and far less coachable during his years in L.A., but under Atkinson he has become the key piece in Brooklyn’s Downtown renovation project this season.

“The great thing about D’Angelo, you can coach him,” said Atkinson after Tuesday night’s win. “I was hard on him in the beginning [against the Kings]. A couple of bad shots, I called a timeout. A rogue defensive possession, I called another timeout to yell at him.

“He responds. He never comes back at you. He says, ‘OK, coach,’ and he gets better. That’s a pleasure when your All-Star that you can coach and accepts coaching and doesn’t cop an attitude and accepts it, that’s huge. That’s leadership to me.”

It’s also the type of collective attitude that has made the Nets one of the most surprising stories in the NBA this year and launched Atkinson into the Coach of the Year conversation.

But a late-season swoon would offset this feel-good story in a hurry.

That’s why the Nets must remain as desperate and determined as they looked in the fourth quarter Tuesday night.

Nothing But Net: Following their long-awaited return to Brooklyn on March 30, the Nets will face another long list of playoff teams, including Boston (43-29), Toronto (51-21), Indiana (44-28), Miami (35-36) and conference-leading Milwaukee (53-18) twice. All but two of those final six games will be played at the Barclays Center, where the Nets boast a 21-16 record this season. … Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s acrobatic game-winning layup with under a second remaining Tuesday night in Sacramento was the first in the four-year career of the longest-tenured Net. “Man, it was amazing,” Hollis-Jefferson said of the reverse, over-the-head basket. “My first game-winner. So, it was definitely an unbelievable feeling, I kind of got a little teary eyed over there. But this is the moments that you live for, you want to play the game for. It’s humbling, it’s awesome. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to enjoy this with.”

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