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Do-or-die time for playoff-hopeful Nets

Brooklyn opens critical two-game road trip in Milwaukee Saturday

April 4, 2019 JT Torenli
Veteran forward Jared Dudley and the rest of the struggling Nets will be at conference-leading Milwaukee on Saturday, desperately needing a win against MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to keep their suddenly tenuous playoff hopes alive. AP Photo/Michael Owens

The most challenging season-ending schedule in the NBA is seriously threatening the Brooklyn Nets’ bid for their first playoff berth in four years.

And the team’s collective lack of alacrity and intensity may have just as much to do with this late-season swan dive as the ongoing slate of tough opponents.

“At this level, fighting for a playoff berth, I thought we’d come out with a little more physicality,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson lamented following Wednesday night’s 115-105 loss to the Toronto Raptors in front of a disappointed sellout crowd of 17,732 at Downtown’s Barclays Center.

Having gone 2-5 on its recent 2 ½-week road trip through three time zones, Brooklyn (39-40) was hoping to get healthy at home, but instead dropped two of three here, including Wednesday’s loss to a Toronto team that is currently the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed with three regular-season games remaining.

“They were the better team. I don’t know how else to say it,” Atkinson added after the Nets slipped back into the thick of a four-team log jam for the final three playoff spots in the East.

“They’re a team that’s going to compete for a championship. We were not up to those standards that you have to be almost perfect and we weren’t. I would say we were average and that’s not good enough to beat that team.”

Nor has it been nearly good enough to get the Nets back into the postseason for the first time since 2015, when they lost a first-round series to Atlanta, a team
Atkinson was working for as an assistant before assuming control here in Brooklyn three years ago.

Brooklyn has dropped seven of its last 10 games after seemingly cementing a playoff bid with a four-game winning streak from March 4-11.

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The Nets have fallen to Oklahoma City, Utah, the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland, Philadelphia, conference-leading Milwaukee and the Raptors – all teams currently holding a playoff spot — during this swoon.

The malaise has left them a half-game behind sixth-seeded Detroit (39-39) and deadlocked with Orlando (39-40) for the final two spots in the East.

Miami (38-40), the first team on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, is just one-half game behind Brooklyn, and will visit the Barclays Center next Wednesday for a potential winner-take-all regular-season finale.

But before the Nets can even dream of controlling their destiny for that epic tilt, they must find a way to win at least one of their next two games on the road, beginning with Saturday’s contest in Milwaukee and concluding Sunday with a quick turnaround at Indiana.

“I think the pressure elevates – not a mental toll or anything like that,” said Nets All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell, who amassed 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists against the Raptors, only to see his team fall deeper into playoff peril.

“Just more of we gotta get it, if we’re gonna get it,” he added. “Now, and not later. There is no later.”

There certainly won’t be if the Nets continue to get off to slow starts, as they did by falling behind the Raptors 34-22 following the first quarter Wednesday.

Brooklyn was also beaten badly on the offensive glass (17-9) and lost the turnover battle (14-7) to Toronto, which is all but locked in behind Milwaukee as the second seed and could face the Nets in the opening round if, of course, Atkinson’s team doesn’t continue to collapse.

“I don’t know how many [offensive rebounds] they got in that first quarter. I know we showed a bunch at halftime, just showing our guys them crashing in and us just not putting a body on them,” Atkinson revealed.

“It’s disappointing a little bit in the sense of urgency in terms of our physicality.”

Head coach Kenny Atkinson’s Nets may be waving bye-bye to a playoff berth if they don’t find a way to pick up a win or two on their weekend road trip through Milwaukee and Indiana. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
Head coach Kenny Atkinson’s Nets may be waving bye-bye to a playoff berth if they don’t find a way to pick up a win or two on their weekend road trip through Milwaukee and Indiana. AP Photo/Kevin Hagen

After going a combined 41-123 during Atkinson’s first two seasons at the helm, Brooklyn began this year with eight losses in its first 28 games, causing many to predict another lost campaign here in our fair borough.

But the Nets, bolstered by the emergence of Russell as the team’s undisputed star and on-the-floor leader, zoomed back into contention and appeared ready to stake their claim as a legitimate playoff contender before this daunting schedule caught up with them over the past month.

“Obviously, [we need to correct] all the little things,” noted Spencer Dinwiddie, who finished with 14 points off the bench against Toronto.

“We’d like to make one more shot, get one more stop, all those things that contribute to getting a win.”

The Bucks, who pasted the Nets 131-121 here in Brooklyn on Monday, could be bidding to lock up the No. 1 seed in the East Saturday when the Nets arrive in Milwaukee.

Or they could be giving superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and some of his teammates a breather if they have already sewn up the conference’s top spot.

Either way, the Nets have to be more prepared, more physical and more desperate Saturday night to finish off this surprising turnaround season before it turns into a major disappointment.

“It’s a tough matchup [against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks],” Russell ceded.

“But we know what we gotta do. It’s going to take five of us to stop him, it’s not just individual.”

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