By Lenn Robbins
If the NBA season ended today, the Brooklyn Nets would not make the playoffs as would the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Folly, of course. The Nets have another 79 games so the above statement probably will turn out to be ridiculous.
Here’s what is not ridiculous: If the Nets don’t learn from their 134-133 OT loss to the Memphis Grizzlies then they are staring at a season of struggle.
The Grizzlies are in full rebuild, just as the Nets once were. Few teams have written a better rebuild story than Brooklyn. Through the smart workings of GM Sean Marks and positive energy of coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have risen from doormat to one of the most intriguing teams in the league.
And when Kevin Durant returns from his surgically repaired Achilles tendon, there’s a real chance this franchise can win its first-ever NBA title. But not if they don’t a few things.
The Nets dug a 14-point hole in Memphis but rallied to take the lead. They couldn’t hold a late eight-point lead. They allowed the Grizzlies to shoot 48.5-percent from the field and 42.4-percent on 3’s.
“We could never get stops,” Atkinson told reporters after the loss. “I don’t know how many straight possessions they scored, but I never felt like we could get the requisite stops to win this game.
“It started in the first quarter when we gave them 14 free throws, a lot of silly mistakes, putting them on the line. Got in a hole again, down 14. We could look at the end and say this and that, but really we didn’t deserve to win the game.”
That’s as honest and accurate an assessment as you’ll ever read.
Atkinson’s words, “Really we didn’t deserve to win the game,” might find a place in the Nets training facility. This team won 42 games and made the playoffs last season because, more often than not, they deserved to win. They outworked, outhustled, out-defended and out-willed the opposition on many nights.
It’s not easy to do. But it’s a little easier when teams view you as the new kid on the block. Before last season’s resurgence the Nets won 69 games over the previous three seasons.
A lot of eyes turned toward the Nets last year. And then, of course, came the Lotto free agency trifecta of Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. Even knowing that Durant will likely miss the season, the addition of Irving along with the development of young players make the Nets a must-watch team.
No longer will opposing teams see ‘Brooklyn’ on the schedule and crack a smile. Nope, you better come ready to play, unless, of course the Nets do not, as was the case in Memphis.
Every team that builds toward a championship run has to learn this lesson, learn what it’s like to have to come be at your best every night because that ‘target on the back’ cliché’ holds a lot of merit.
“We digressed a little bit where just individual pride, keeping your man in front of you, simple sort of backside rotations whatever it might be, just sort of a little bit off at this point,” Joe Harris told reporters. “It starts with taking individual ownership and being able to guard your man.”
Starting with Wednesday night’s home game against the Indiana Pacers, the Nets need to get back to doing that. They need to fully grasp that with greater expectations come greater challenge every night.
If the Nets do that, they will be one of the better NBA stories. If not, what seemed ridiculous in October may be of real concern in April.