Whatever happens from here until the end of the 2018-19 season would fall in the category of windfall profits for the Brooklyn Nets. The franchise was left for dead for the remainder of the decade after the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade but, unexpectedly, finds themselves very much alive in this season’s Eastern Conference playoff race.
No one is more surprised by Brooklyn’s 36-33 record, occupancy in the East’s sixth spot and consistent ability to redefine its ceiling than Kenny Atkinson, the team’s head coach and, since taking the job two-and-a-half years ago, the consistent reality check for those who would get ahead of themselves, both in the locker room and among the paid observers of the team.
But Monday night, after Brooklyn destroyed a Detroit Pistons team that entered Barclays Center playing as well as anyone and, by halftime, was running its offense at half-speed, you could hear Atkinson trying to pump the breaks on, well, himself.
“They all count as one win, right?” Atkinson said from the postgame presser podium, actually moving his arms in a “calm down” motion as he said it. “I don’t really think about when it happens in the season. I’m getting carried away, right? We’re still a little over five hundred. You look at this road trip and the games we have and I’m not sure we’re favored in many of them, quite honestly. We know we’ve got a difficult task. We know we’re average, in that area. We’re not celebrating here.”
They are, though, at least a little. The excitement is understandable, and not just because Atkinson is the same coach who kept everyone motivated through two truly awful seasons, years everyone understood to be necessary culture-building exercises in lieu of having the talent necessary to compete at the NBA’s highest level. They were stealing an occasional win when another team came in and failed to measure up to Brooklyn’s consistent effort, but far more often with opposing talent taking off anyway at crunch time, Atkinson praising his team for extreme trying, the opposing coach tipping his hat, and then the process repeating while the Nets kept sinking in the standings.
That hasn’t happened this year, and Atkinson is honest about how that’s forced him to recalibrate.
“I keep saying I think we’re ahead of schedule,” Atkinson said. “If you talk about the plan and what the plan was, that wasn’t in the cards to be in this battle right now. This group has surprised me, to be honest with you. I think they have played above expectations. It’s a good feeling, but now it’s an anxious and a nervous feeling. Now, we’ve got this new goal, this new kind of thing with the playoffs. That’s kind of a welcome surprise, but it adds a pressure sooner than I thought it was going to come.”
The Nets have evolved — D’Angelo Russell into an All-Star, Joe Harris from shooter to complete player, and perhaps most significantly, Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen into a pair of 21-year-olds helping the team win now at both ends — and so has Atkinson, moving from pure development into a competitor who can see the darkness at the tunnel’s most submerged spot starting to lift, and is responding by racing more purposefully toward it.
The Nets see it, too, perhaps because of Atkinson’s vision, and they played like it on Monday, ahead of what will be a season-defining 15-day road trip, thanks to Barclays Center’s popularity for college basketball postseason action. The crowds have grown in Brooklyn, not just in number but in intensity, a dedicated group of fans adding at the margins, the way exciting young teams often do, the way Deron Williams and Joe Johnson never juiced the emotions of the Barclays faithful.
The team responded by treating them to a series of deflections, fast breaks and dunks. Rodions Kurucs, blessed with anticipation and length but not, as of yet, the strength to match Blake Griffin, decided the best way to stop Griffin would be to get between him and the ball, and that choice turned into several early breakaways. Griffin, for his part, responded with a 1-for-10 shooting performance.
Spencer Dinwiddie is playing like he never missed a moment, combining with Russell for playmaking ability that elevates this star-less team into a difficult offensive matchup at its best. Jarrett Allen didn’t let Andre Drummond bully him, and the Nets as a whole outrebounded the Pistons — that phrase particularly evocative when describing this Brooklyn team. It is “the Nets as a whole” who appear to be rising, rather than the typical NBA story of a breakout star lifting all boats.
“Oh, man, you forget they’re 21,” Atkinson said of Allen and Kurucs. “It’s to the point where I don’t think of them that way. I think of them as major contributors, starting in this league… Like I said the other night, his toughness, his lack of fear, for lack of a better term, I think is much higher than I thought. His toughness is impressive. He’s not afraid of anybody.”
Atkinson was speaking of Kurucs, but it could have been about any of the Nets. Allen met reporters postgame in the Brooklyn locker room, big smile on his face, and what was striking was less that Allen had met the Andre Drummond challenge, and more how he just takes it in stride now, the ability to compete with and beat anyone.
“I still thought that before but you see we’re bringing to a whole other level in terms of physicality,” Allen said. “We’re still finding ways to improve our game, and tonight was just another way we showed it.”
There’s that road trip ahead, and the Nets have veterans who still want to see how this team responds on the road. After all, the playoffs are in reach, but a series with home court advantage probably isn’t. So to exceed even these revised expectations, the Nets will need to win on the road, roughly a break-even proposition so far this season (15-17), and something that only comes with reps.
“Well, I don’t think that right now, without our road showing, we would even be in the playoff hunt,” Nets forward Jared Dudley said. “It shows you that the steps that this team has taken to win these games at Denver, at Houston. But now this is where it counts the most. This is basically the closing time so it’s going to show us: are we good enough to make it? Are we good enough to overcome hurdles and adversity? I think we’ve passed all the tests, and so this is the final one.”
It’s quite a test. Ed Davis, no Kurucs-style NBA newcomer, said it’s the longest road trip of his career. Atkinson said he plans to keep on looking one game at a time, no different than he has throughout this steep incline of a rebuild, that “when I start doing the schedule and counting wins or losses, that’s when I get in trouble.”
But as the Pistons listlessly pushed through the fourth quarter, Brooklyn’s own energy flagged just once, on an Ish Smith steal and too-easy trip through the lane and to the basket. Instantly, Atkinson called timeout, even in a game Brooklyn led, 93-69.
It was the kind of teaching moment he often deployed in games the Nets hopelessly trailed, eye on the future. He’s still doing that, but the future is tangible now, reachable. They still play like a Kenny Atkinson team with effort. The pieces have come together in a way that leaves opposing coaches now praising Brooklyn after the game, for the what every bit as much as the how.
“I think usually we bring the energy, we bring the juice; that’s a characteristic of this team,” Atkinson said. “Where we’ve made strides is that we’re a smarter basketball team. We make better decisions, we understand our defensive schemes better, but you can’t just have the energy and a competitive spirit. It’s got to be both. We have both of those aligned, and I think we played smart basketball tonight on both ends. That gives you a chance to beat the really good teams. In a seven-game series that’s something maybe we’ll talk about down the line.”