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Brooklyn Nets

Once desperate in dark days of December, resilient Brooklyn Nets are on the rise

NEW YORK — D’Angelo Russell prayed for a miss. Standing by the Brooklyn Nets‘ bench, his feet at the edge of the court, that was all he could do. On the previous possession against Toronto, Russell had dribbled the ball for almost the length of the shot clock, repeatedly trying to create an advantage and eventually losing the ball as he fell out of bounds. Up by a single point with 24 seconds left, benched for defensive purposes, Russell stood motionless as the ball left Fred VanVleet’s hands, the outcome of this overtime game up in the air.

A moment’s significance is defined by what precedes and follows it. In this case, in the most immediate sense, it was preceded by Brooklyn losing a 14-point lead, only to get another chance because Raptors star Kawhi Leonard’s short jumper rattled out near the end of regulation. In the broader sense, it was preceded by eight straight losses, a league-high eight blown double-digit leads and all sorts of basketball heartbreak. It was followed by a full-fledged turnaround that established the Nets as one of the league’s most compelling teams, but at the time, no one knew that was coming. All that mattered was whether or not the ball dropped through the net.  

“We were desperate,” Brooklyn center Ed Davis said. 

Kenny Atkinson

Early-season struggles caused frustration in Brooklyn. 

The Nets’ season took a turn in Minnesota on Nov. 12. Emerging star Caris LeVert, who hit a game winner in Denver three days earlier, collided with Wolves rookie Josh Okogie in the air and took a nasty fall, suffering what was medically termed a subtalar dislocation of his right foot and moderate ligament damage. At first, it seemed more severe, almost certainly season-ending. On the court, players on both teams fought back tears. 

“It felt terrible,” Nets wing Joe Harris said. “The mood in the locker room was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. People were very dejected. It was tough to bounce back.”

Brooklyn seemed to be on its way to a feel-good win on Nov. 25 when it built a 20-point lead at home against Philadelphia, but that lead evaporated. With 10 seconds left, the Sixers trailed by one and inbounded the ball to Jimmy Butler, who calmly drilled a step-back 3 for the win. Five days later against Memphis, the Nets led by 10 points with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, and then, in Harris’ words, “fell apart.” Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson made a 4-point play and a 30-footer in the span of 11 seconds, with Russell fumbling an inbounds pass out of bounds in between them. Brooklyn lost in double-overtime.

The low point came against the dismal Cavaliers on Dec. 3. The Nets were 8-16 overall and 2-8 without LeVert, and they found themselves in another tight game. This time, Cavs reserve Alec Burks went one-on-one with Spencer Dinwiddie and threw down a two-handed dunk to seal the game with three seconds left. The mood afterward?

“Shitty to say the least,” Davis said. “That one hurt the most.” 

NetsDaily’s headline read, “The ship is sinking.” Two days later, I sat next to the writer of that story, Anthony Puccio, as Brooklyn improbably took a 23-point lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Puccio, who has covered just about every Nets game since Paul Pierce convinced Kevin Garnett to go to Brooklyn, told me he thought they’d blow it. Extremely serious basketball analyst that I am, I disagreed: The Thunder aren’t much of a 3-point shooting team, so it would be tough to erase that kind of deficit.

Puccio was right. Paul George went bonkers, scoring 25 of his 47 points in a seven-minute stretch in the fourth quarter and outscoring the Nets by himself in the final frame. I laughed when his game-winning 3 went in because it felt like it was too on the nose, but the conversations at Barclays Center soon turned serious: Had coach Kenny Atkinson lost the locker room? Would Sean Marks’ front office, in possession of its own first-round pick for the first time, decide to tank? As ESPN’s Zach Lowe would write that week, “They cannot continue losing every close game. Someone in ownership will soon grow frustrated enough to demand improvement. That’s just how this works.” 

“We definitely heard the chatter about Coach being on the hot seat, should we tank or not, who should be playing and things like that,” Davis said. “That stuff was real.”

Rodions Kurucs Kenny Atkinson

The Nets are trying to build on a foundation established by Kenny Atkinson.

“The way we’re losing, it’s like Groundhog Day,” Jared Dudley said in the Nets’ locker room after George’s dagger. Dudley called his team out for “stupid turnovers,” silly fouls and poor shot selection. He said there was a here-we-go-again feeling down the stretch and Brooklyn got anxious. As young as the team is, the vets — Dudley, Davis and DeMarre Carroll — understood the severity of the situation. 

“Me, D.C., J.D., we know how it is,” Davis said. “You start to struggle and then management, coaches, they start doing tricky, weird things with the lineups. Certain guys don’t play. It’s just not a good look. For guys like the vets, we’re in contract years, that’s like the last thing that you want, to be on a team that’s tanking and not playing to win.”

The next day, the Nets met with Atkinson at their practice facility in Sunset Park. Then they watched every agonizing fourth-quarter mistake against the Thunder without him. The players-only film session “wasn’t an airing of grievances,” Dinwiddie said, but rather an exercise in problem-solving. They had heard Atkinson’s voice enough, and they needed to work on their communication. 

“It’s different any time it’s players-only,” Dudley said. “It’s just accountability, going through it, being brutally honest, asking questions. Why? Hey, Jarrett Allen, why are you picking this guy up so late? Hearing their answer, and then talking to them.”

Dudley took the lead. He stressed the importance of doing the little things in high-pressure situations: boxing out, making the extra pass, keeping track of time and score. Other players chimed in. No one got defensive. The only problem was that the Nets’ next game was against the Raptors, who owned the league’s best record.

Brooklyn opened the game on a 13-2 run and Leonard didn’t make his first field goal until late in the second quarter, but, as usual, the game got stressful. It was tied at halftime, the Nets led by one after three quarters and Leonard went on a personal 6-0 run late in the fourth. Dinwiddie had a chance to win it in regulation, but couldn’t score over Leonard.

“We were just like, shit, man, we’re on an eight-game losing streak, we just hope we can get a win any way, any how, by any means,” Davis said. “That’s all we were thinking about. We couldn’t even look towards the second half in the first quarter. We had to take it possession by possession.”

Jared Dudley, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen

The Nets know you must stick together when a season is going sideways.

As Russell prayed for a miss and VanVleet held his follow through, Atkinson and Dudley both leaned slightly sideways, as if they had the power to tilt the flight of the ball. The ball clanged off the rim, and Allen grabbed it with two hands as time expired, proceeding to bounce it off the floor as hard as he could. 

Russell breathed a sigh of relief before pushing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the chest. He hugged his teammate and colorfully praised him for his defense against Leonard. A short while later, Russell said that the basketball gods had blessed the Nets, and they hoped to run off a few more wins. 

“It was just like, damn, thank you,” Dinwiddie said. “It was as simple as that. It was just like thank you because that would have been another crushing loss, another overtime loss, another last-second loss. All those things, it would have just been like damn.”

The win was “a huge weight off our shoulders,” Harris said. It was also a confidence booster: If they could beat the Raptors, they thought they could beat anybody, even without LeVert. Still, before their “road” game at Madison Square Garden the next day, Atkinson had to answer questions about chasing lottery balls. He said the word “tanking” is taboo around the team, and, even if fans disagreed, the organization was committed to competing and improving. 

Brooklyn beat the Knicks, then Dinwiddie scored a career-high 39 points in a win in Philadelphia. The overqualified sixth man finalized a contract extension in the middle of a podcast before dropping 27 in a win against Washington. Russell had 32 against Atlanta, then Lakers fans who came to Barclays went home with an L and an indelible memory of Allen rejecting LeBron James at the rim. A narrow victory over the Bulls made it seven straight, the Nets’ longest winning streak since January 2013, the year before Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s brief stopover. Only four other teams have ever responded to that many consecutive losses with that many consecutive wins.

“Play smarter, and confidence grows,” Dudley said. “You win a couple of these type of games, now you’re expecting to win.”

Caris LeVert, D'Angelo Russell

Brooklyn employs an All-Star and a guy who played like an All-Star before his injury.

At a recent practice, Dudley said the Nets were about where he thought they’d be: “Around .500, fighting.” He didn’t foresee either of the streaks, but he said at the beginning of the season that they would need time to find their rhythm and develop chemistry. He credited Atkinson for being willing to bench young players in crunch time, and he pointed to better decision-making. George’s backbreaking 3 — and Dudley’s ensuing rant — might never have happened if Russell hadn’t shot too early on the previous possession. On Jan. 18 in Orlando, Dudley was pleased to see Russell hit a clutch 3, not just because it went in, but because he took it with enough time so that the Magic wouldn’t have the final possession. 

“He’s already learning, which people don’t see,” Dudley said. “We see it.”

Russell scored 40 points in that Orlando game, leading the Nets as they came back from a 21-point deficit. Unlike most rebuilding teams, though, Brooklyn is beating teams with depth. Russell’s career night followed Allen’s — the second-year center had 20 points and 24 rebounds in an overtime win in Houston. He and versatile rookie Rodions Kurucs, drafted No. 40 last June after being hidden on FC Barcelona’s B team, has stabilized the starting lineup and earned Andrei Kirilenko comparisons from Atkinson. Davis, the beloved backup big, leads the league in rebound rate and leads the team in real plus-minus. The Nets’ bench is second in bench scoring and, since that OKC loss, fourth in aggregate net rating.

Separately and succinctly, asked to define the team’s identity, Dinwiddie and Harris said “resiliency.” In addition to the LeVert injury, Dudley, Carroll, Hollis-Jefferson and Allen Crabbe have missed significant time. ESPN recently reported that Brooklyn hopes LeVert will return in February, but the news appeared near the bottom of a story about Dinwiddie needing thumb surgery. Despite all this, the Nets, back in action on Saturday against the Magic (7 p.m. ET — watch on fuboTV), have won 20 of their last 27 games. It is Atkinson’s nature to stay in the moment, but when he thinks back to early December, he remembers what didn’t happen. There was no procession of players coming into his office, suggesting major strategic changes. There was no chaos. 

“When you go through those rough stretches, it’s easy to start pointing the finger and blaming somebody,” Davis said. “Oh, Coach needs to play me. This guy deserves to be playing. He’s taking too many shots. Things like that. One thing that I can say about this team: we didn’t do that. That’s the honest truth. No pointing fingers. We took those losses on the chin, from Coach to the last man on the roster. We didn’t complain about the officials, none of that. We just handled business. Good comes to good, and that’s why we control our own destiny now. We don’t have to sit back on League Pass and hope this team loses and hope this team loses. We just gotta focus on us.”

Jarrett Allen LeBron James

Brooklyn’s 20-year-old center is earning a reputation for blocking superstars.

“I want you to know that Jarrett Allen is a terrible teammate!”

That is Dinwiddie, yelling across the practice court loud enough for Allen to hear, concluding an interview in which he told me the Nets’ dark days feel about a year old. There is an unmistakable ease and brightness about this team now, along with a sense that the last few years of foundation-building will pay off. Last summer, Harris chose to sign a two-year, $16 million deal to stay in Brooklyn despite other appealing offers — “some were shorter, but more [money]; some were longer, roughly the same,” he said — because he believed in the organization. He didn’t know when things would turn, only that he wanted to be there when they did. 

Harris said there is more of a “palpable energy” at Barclays Center lately. Near the end of a recent win against the Magic, he took a crucial charge and fans responded with an organic BROOOOKLYN! chant. In a couple of weeks, Russell will represent the Nets in the All-Star Game, Allen and Kurucs in the Rising Stars game

“People are starting to get excited,” Allen said. “Nothing is taken away from the Knicks, they were here first, they still have the legacy. But people are starting to notice there’s another team across the bridge.”

The hype, however, should not be overstated. On Tuesday, after matching last year’s win total against Chicago, Dudley tweeted a plea for Brooklyn fans to “start coming to these games and filling this arena!” While the tanking Knicks are getting buzz for the theoretical splash they could make after trading their best player, the Nets are winning and positioning themselves as an attractive free-agent destination at the same time. 

“We’re the six seed, we have a winning record, it’s about time they start to pack this place out,” Davis said. “Hopefully, man. There’s a lot of people in Brooklyn. I don’t understand why we’re not going to start to sell out some of these games. You’ve got a playoff team in your city, man. You’ve definitely gotta take advantage of it.”

Brooklyn lost a nailbiter in San Antonio on Thursday, and its schedule is about to get tougher, with matchups against Milwaukee, Denver and Toronto before the All-Star break. It is possible that the team’s 28-25 record is more representative of its talent than the wild success of the last eight weeks. There is no guarantee, either, that the Nets will recruit a star this summer. Their marketing department, however, is pushing season tickets with pull quotes from positive press. On the Flatbush Ave. side of Barclays Center, next to the entrance to the team store, passersby are greeted by decals of Allen blocking LeBron and Russell’s famous ice-in-my-veins celebration, flanking the text BROOKLYN’S RISE IS INEVITABLE. For the first time in a long time, that kind of statement doesn’t seem outlandish or fantastical. Buying in no longer requires a leap of faith.

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