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Nets already looking forward to better days

Franchise remains optimistic despite poor playoff showing in Philly

April 24, 2019 JT Torenli
Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson congratulates the Sixers’ Brett Brown following a hard-fought but ultimately one-sided playoff series that ended Brooklyn’s impressive turnaround season.(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

A 22-point, season-ending loss in Philadelphia doesn’t usually feel like the start of something big.

But don’t tell that to the Brooklyn Nets, who saw their turnaround campaign close with a thud following Tuesday night’s ugly 122-100 Game 5 defeat to the 76ers in front of a sellout crowd of 20,595 at the Wells Fargo Center.

After winning Game 1 in Philadelphia, the Nets were thoroughly outclassed and outplayed by the bigger, brawnier Sixers.

Philadelphia got a little help from the referees, but plenty of assistance from a Brooklyn squad that showed it was not yet ready to battle its way through a long playoff series.

“I think when you come out of a series like this, you’re a little taken aback,” ceded Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson after watching his team trail from start to finish en route to its fourth consecutive loss in the spirited, but one-sided series.

“But we understand what’s in front of us, but very proud of our guys,” he added. “Wonderful season. Talk about championships and that’s great, but seasons like these, you guys know how hard that is in professional sports, especially people picked us 32 wins, 30 wins and to come up with 42, sixth seed in the playoffs, I’m very proud of what we accomplished this year.”

What they can accomplish going forward will be dictated by how general manager Sean Marks and Atkinson approach the pending free agency of All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell, as well as several other notable players who will be on the open market this summer.

And don’t forget that salary cap room Marks has brilliantly created over the past several seasons.

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It will give Brooklyn the opportunity to lure top-level free-agent talent like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and perhaps even Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris, who filled up the scoresheet with 12 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals in Wednesday night’s series finale.

After going a combined 41-123 during Atkinson’s first two seasons at the helm, the Nets began this year with a dismal 8-18 record, losing Caris LeVert for several months due to a gruesome foot injury suffered in Minnesota in November.

But Brooklyn went a stunning 34-22 thereafter, finishing with its first winning record in five years and reaching the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

“I told them great season, great group,” Atkinson said of his post-game meeting with the team. “Meet you at 11 [a.m.] tomorrow. We have an 11 o’clock meeting. Lot of hugs and thank yous all around. Most positive locker room I’ve seen after a loss like this.”

And there’s plenty for this group to be positive about going forward.

Veteran Nets forward Jared Dudley and his teammates showed plenty of fight against Philadelphia but failed to capitalize on a Game 1 win in the series, which ended Wednesday night in the City of Brotherly Love. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Veteran Nets forward Jared Dudley and his teammates showed plenty of fight against Philadelphia but failed to capitalize on a Game 1 win in the series, which ended Wednesday night in the City of Brotherly Love. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

 

Russell emerged as the face of this burgeoning franchise, Joe Harris won the NBA’s 3-Point Challenge during All-Star Weekend and LeVert finally returned to form down the stretch after sitting out 42 games with his early season injury.

“We had talks within the team and we kind of knew our goals and we knew that [making the playoffs] was definitely one of our goals,” said LeVert, who poured in 18 points in Game 5.

“Going forward we’re not done yet,” he added. “We feel like we’ve got a long way to go. A lot to get better at. We can’t wait to attack the summer and attack those things.”

Spencer Dinwiddie remained one of the best sixth men in the league and young players like second-year center Jarrett Allen and rookie Rodions Kurucs established themselves as rotation regulars.

While Atkinson, known primarily for his player-development skills, will doubtlessly get the lion’s share of the credit for Brooklyn’s turnaround season, veterans like Jared Dudley, DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis each played an important role as mentors and on-the-court leaders for the team’s young nucleus.

“Definitely a lot of positive vibes to look forward to,” said Russell, who went from locker-room pariah in Los Angeles to potential franchise player here in Brooklyn.

“We had a very successful year,” he added. “Guys came into their own throughout the year. It’s definitely a positive going into the summer, coming into the next year. Individually, one of the
few guys that came into their own and thrived, but it was a collective group that thrived I would say.”

They thrived but ultimately couldn’t survive against a Philadelphia team that outmuscled them along the interior and guarded them hard enough up top to force Harris and the rest of Brooklyn’s dead-eye 3-point shooting crew into a four-game malaise from beyond the arc.

The series will serve as a template for how much more the Nets need to improve to not only make the playoffs, but to go deep into the postseason and deliver this franchise a legitimate shot at its first-ever NBA title.

“I said it toward the ends of the year, even when we were fighting for playoffs, even when we made the playoffs; we have a long way to go,” Atkinson noted.

“We understand where we are. Yes, we’re pleased with improving and being a better team from last year and making the playoffs, but we understand where the level where the Sixers are, that’s a long ways away.”

That’s also the attitude that helped this team go from an afterthought on the NBA landscape to one of the most pleasant surprise stories of the year.

“[Losing this series] give(s) us a good push going into the offseason because you know how important the offseasons are for us,” Atkinson said.

“It’s our competitive advantage, so we’ve got to take a week rest and get back on the horse, get back to work.”

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