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Atkinson a ‘Believer’ entering Sixers series

Brooklyn to visit Philadelphia on Saturday for postseason opener

April 11, 2019 JT Torenli
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and the rest of the Brooklyn Nets will have their hands full with 76ers big man Joel Embiid Saturday, when they visit Philadelphia for the opener of their best-of-7 first-round playoff series.(AP Photo/Michael Perez)

After going a combined 41-123 during his first two seasons as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, Kenny Atkinson had to admit that he didn’t see this coming.

“Never envisioned it, not in my wildest dreams,” Atkinson admitted Wednesday night, moments after the Nets nailed down their first playoff berth in four years with a regular season-ending 113-94 victory over the Miami Heat in front of a sellout crowd of 17,732 at the Barclays Center.

Brooklyn, which went an NBA-worst 20-62 just two seasons ago, will now begin what it hopes will be an extended postseason push as the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed.

The Nets will visit third-seeded Philadelphia Saturday night for the opener of a best-of-7 tilt with the 76ers, whom they split four meetings with this season.

Atkinson, who is preparing for his first-ever playoff series as head coach, ceded to his team following the contest that a postseason spot wasn’t exactly what he was expecting from this group, especially following an 8-18 start to the campaign.

“And I told the players that,” he noted. “Your coach didn’t believe it until we really got deep in the season and it was right there in front of my nose. I think it’s one of those special years.

“I think it’s one of those, and I know you guys have [written] and talked a lot about it, but it’s true. It’s a great story of a group of guys that exceeded expectations.”

Whether the Nets can continue to exceed those expectations will rely heavily on their ability to stop Sixers big man Joel Embiid, who put up 39 points and pulled down 13 rebounds against Brooklyn in the Sixers’ 13-point rout in Philadelphia back on March 28 in the last meeting between the squads.

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“We might see them in the playoffs, so it was good to see where we’re at, especially after two losses,” Embiid said that night.

“I’ve been feeling it. I’ve been getting ready. I’m excited.”

And so are the Nets, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and will host Games 3 and 4 in Downtown Brooklyn next Thursday night and Saturday afternoon.

“I think we’ve played them tough,” Nets All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell said of the Sixers.

“We give ourselves a chance at the end of the game every time against them. We beat them as well too, so we’ve just got to go into the playoffs as prepared as we can and let the results end up where they are.”

Where the Nets are compared to where they’ve been since their first-round ousting at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks in 2015 is something to marvel at, considering the team had to battle through injuries to several key players, including Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, both of whom are ready to roll in Philly.

“We’re a confident group no matter who we’re playing against honestly,” said LeVert, who is finally displaying his early season form after missing 42 games with a foot injury.

“We’re really anxious to be in this situation, really blessed to be in this situation. Whether it was Philly, Milwaukee, whoever it was, we were ready to go.”

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