Brooklyn Nets Aim to Build a New Streak
With two straight wins erasing slide, opportunity to define a new stretch of season
Kenny Atkinson called it a "quality of life" win.
"You feel a little better," the Nets coach said after Saturday night's win over the Knicks. "Everything tastes a little better."
Sunday's off-day surely felt brighter in the wake of back-to-back wins against the Raptors and Knicks that left an eight-game losing streak in the rearview mirror. Truth is, a weight had already been lifted with the win over the conference-leading Raptors. Things felt a little bit different walking into the building on Saturday night.
"Just the air of optimism," said Spencer Dinwiddie. "A little bit of fresh air. The tension wasn't as high."
To keep it that way, the Nets needed to follow up, and they did. Central to it all was Dinwiddie with his game-high 25 points and six assists, controlling the ball as the Nets spread the floor and bled the clock over the final minutes.
He was perfectly aware that Brooklyn's slide, with the string of close finishes and tight games slipping from their grasp, was building up the wrong kind of narrative and outside attention around the club.
"It's impossible not to," said Dinwiddie. "It is what it is. It's part of being in the NBA. You go on an eight-game losing streak, you're going to have criticism. That's literally what you sign up for. But we believe in our guys, we believe in our group, we believe in our coach, we believe in our staff and our organization. Part of winning is proving that belief and then putting that on display for the fans and the rest of the league."
There was, of course, the players-only film session prior to the breakthrough win against the Raptors that Atkinson referenced before that evening's game. After that overtime victory, the players themselves didn't have much to say about it, but once another 24 hours went by, they were willing to open up a little bit more about it.
But Atkinson was never reticent about liking the results of letting the players take some ownership in dissecting what had been going wrong.
"We don't want to push culture where it's all coming from the staff and the coaches and management," said Atkinson. "They've got to pick themselves up. They've got to take onus and take responsibility. That's kind of what the positive I got out of it. They lifted themselves up instead of us feeding them film, feeding them player development, feeding them performance time. When you have real development and real progress, I think it's player led. I think the great things that happen with teams in this league that I've recognized, it comes from within, it comes from the players."
Atkinson stressed that the players-only film session was a coaching staff suggestion, not a gripe session. Dinwiddie echoed that it wasn't exactly, you know, an airing of grievances.
"I wouldn't call it a Festivus ... but it was more technical things," said Dinwiddie. "You're talking about, 'I thought you were going to switch there.' Or, 'hey, we need to maybe talk out the switch there,' if a guy goes here, let's jump this play that way. Things like that. It wasn't so much like, 'hey, Greg, I got a problem with you.'"
And it can't be overlooked that the slide the Nets experienced came not long after losing leading scorer Caris LeVert to his foot dislocation on Nov. 12. They split their next four before things went sideways. But along the way, seven of those eight losses featured a margin of five points or less in the final five minutes. Half of them were single-possession games in the last two minutes.
All eight of the games were against teams that were either playoff teams last season or are currently in playoff position this year. (Yes, that includes Cleveland, which is playing under some different, LeBron-less circumstances this season).
"The frustrating thing for us is that, when we lost him, we all realized we could take a hit," said Atkinson. "But then, all of a sudden, we’re competing with these kind of elite teams. So, it was like, ‘Wait a second, we can do this without him.’ That continues to be the mindset. I think the players feel like that. We’re not losing games by 30 points or 20 points. We’re in every game. We’re competing. Now, we miss his end-of-game stuff. He’s won [two] games for us at the end of the game. We miss his athleticism, we miss his spirit and we miss another really good player on our squad. But hoping to have him back soon."
Certainly, some surface numbers are still down without LeVert. The team's offensive rating was 109.8 as of Nov. 13 and has been 106.1 since. Assists have gone from 24.3 per game to 20.6. Effective field goal percentage from 52.3 to 49.6. It's also notable that Joe Harris was sidelined as well during Brooklyn's two worst offensive performances during its losing streak.
But if Nov. 13 marked one break point in Brooklyn's season, maybe this is another. They've got consecutive wins in the books, and three days between games before they visit Philadelphia on Wednesday.
"It's an adjustment period," said Dinwiddie. "Caris was playing great basketball. That's just kind of the NBA. You look at the Warriors. The Warriors are the best team in the league. They had, what, a three-game losing streak when Steph went out? That's the best team in the league. They have arguably the best scorer of all time and arguably the best shooter of all time still playing for their roster. If a team like that can lose one guy and go on a three-game losing streak, then obviously if we've been building an identity of playing a certain way and we lose a key piece to that, it can affect what we do. Once we continue to adjust, continue to settle into what our team is right now, we'll continue to get better and better."