The Nets weren’t supposed to be this far along this fast.
Even Coach Kenny Atkinson didn’t foresee a playoff berth so soon after bottoming out.
“Never envisioned it. Not in my wildest dreams.”
But as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the Nets season will continue on into the postseason for the first time since 2015.
The process has been far from storybook. Ignoring the recent past (69 wins in the previous three seasons combined and a crippling trade with the Boston Celtics), the Nets struggled even at times this season. They had to overcome a seven-game losing streak in November, which feels like a lifetime ago when watching the current iteration of the Nets having fun, rooting for one another and playing good, team basketball.
But their bounce back from early season lows wasn’t the result of trades or signings, nor was it the result of getting healthy – in fact, the Nets hit their stride AFTER their leading scorer Caris LeVert went down with a gruesome, albeit not too serious, leg injury.
The genesis of their miracle season can be traced back to an overtime victory against the Toronto Raptors in early December and a “next man up” mentality preached by the coaching staff dating back beyond the start of the season.
Following that hard-fought home overtime win, the Nets rattled off another six consecutive and finished the season 34-22.
They convalesced around their next man up – D’Angelo Russell – and his stellar play and leadership, an alleged hole in his game according to critics prior to this season. Russell took the opportunity presented to him in LeVert’s injury and proved his value to the league, solidifying his first Allstar appearance (and probably a near-max contract this offseason.)
Russell and the Nets proved detractors wrong. Their reward? A matchup against division rival Philadelphia 76ers in the first-round of the playoffs.
But Russell’s confidence hasn’t waned at the prospect of facing the star-studded 76ers.
“We beat them as well, too,” Russell said following their victory over the Miami HEAT on Wednesday. “So we have to go into the Playoffs as prepared as we can.”
Coach Atkinson said he was happy to play Philadelphia following their Wednesday night game, if only in the interest of rivalries and geography.
“I think it’s great that it’s Brooklyn-Philadelphia. Right down the Turnpike. Helps all our quality of life. We don’t have to do passport control (which would have been necessary for travel to Toronto). Philly is a great city so that’s great, too.”
“I like the proximity,” Atkinson said about the possibility of initiating an intra-divisional rivalry. “I like it for the media and the fans. You want to develop rivalries with teams that are natural rivals. I think it’s a great matchup and an opportunity to start building a rivalry that is pretty close to us.”
Nets’ rookie Dzanan Musa also alluded to a preference to play Philadelphia and not Toronto to Basketball Insiders prior to Wednesday’s game.
“Toronto is a great team that is well-organized, while the Sixers have had their ups and downs (lately), so we could take advantage of that. Both would be interesting matchups and we think we can play against both teams.”
But Musa ultimately said the Nets are focused on what they can do and not who they play.
But in his preference to play Philly, Musa’s logic isn’t incorrect. The Nets split their season series with the 76ers, whereas they lost 1-3 to the Raptors, who have better balance and more clearly defined roles for their players.
But there’s always a catch: The Nets and 76ers have only played one another once since the trade deadline. That game was in Philadelphia on March 28 and the Nets lost 123-110.
In the Nets’ favor, that matchup was still early on in LeVert’s return from injury. LeVert returned from injury on February 9 after missing approximately three months, which would surely influence his effect on that game. And LeVert has made strides to returning to his pre-injury form since early February.
But in the 76ers favor, Philly traded for Tobias Harris at the deadline, meaning that the result of the most recent game is probably the only accurate depiction of their impending first-round clash since it’s the only example in which Philly had a complete roster.
So we’ve established that we haven’t really seen these teams play one another as they exist on day one of the postseason. But wait, there’s more: Joel Embiid, the 76ers anchor, could miss one or more games in the first-round with knee soreness.
“I’m optimistic he’ll be ready for this weekend,” said 76ers General Manager Elton Brand, who then went on to somewhat contradict himself in saying that it’s also possible he may not be.
The narrative around Embiid could be a smokescreen so the Nets would be wise to prepare as though he’ll be fully available. Coach Atkinson, for his part, seems locked in on only what he can affect.
“I’m excited to figure out that puzzle and how we can steal a game (in Philadelphia) and go from there.”
“I like that we can play different ways,” Atkinson said. “Over the last 10 games we realized that we can play small, we found different lineups we like because in the playoffs, it’s about adjustments.”
But in addition to their opponent, the Nets have in-house challenges to overcome, too. There is very limited playoff experience on the roster, including the coaching staff. “My first time (in the playoffs) as a head coach,” Atkinson said. “Having counted the number of players without playoff experience, it seems like a lot of them.”
But there are at least a few veterans on the Brooklyn roster that can lead the inexperienced Nets through the confusion and pressures of the playoffs.
“Jared has been really vocal all year,” Atkinson said. “He’s been the ring leader in the Milwaukee and Indiana in pushing these guys to another level. I think he’ll help me in the playoffs,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson continued on about Jared Dudely’s value.
“He’s been through a lot more playoff games than I have,” Atkinson said. “Having a guy like that is huge – I’ll put DeMarre (Carroll) and Ed (Davis) in that group. They can relay stuff to the young guys and it helps us in our preparation.”
Coach Atkinson seems to appreciate his team’s development.
“Besides winning a championship, I think (seasons like this) are the greatest thing about sports – you can beat the odds if you have a good group of guys with great chemistry.”
But the Nets’ players are squarely focused on success. Russell declined to view this season as a success after locking in the sixth-seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I don’t want to speak on that (settling for a first-round exit),” Russell said. “I want to make it out of the first round.”