Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson did not want to speak of the playoffs all season long. This could be understood since the Nets have not made the postseason in four years. Well the drought is over because Brooklyn has locked up a playoff spot by beating the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers had won nine straight against the Nets but tonight came up short. Brooklyn prevailed 108-96 on Sunday.
“I’m just glad the way we did it,” Atkinson said. “Here against a tough Indiana team, on the road, on a back-to-back, which we struggled with in the past. Just a wonderful way to qualify for the playoffs. Felt like last two games was another level of focus. Another level of being locked in. They wanted it so bad. An extra energy out there.”
Brooklyn had to come over many obstacles to once again reach the playoffs. Unlike most teams that make a return to playoffs after many years being absent, the Nets did it without a key free agent or superstar. Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks have rebuilt the franchise without the luck of the Irish of having a top-five pick in the draft or signing a “LeBron James” in free agency. They’ve done it with smart personnel moves and the development of players such as point guard D’Angelo Russell, who made his first All-Star appearance this season.
The hard work has paid off for the Nets. They went from winning only 20 games in Atkinson’s first season in 2016-17 to 28 games last season to winning at least 41 games this season. That is a quick turnaround in the NBA. Look at other teams, such as the Los Angeles Lakers who have struggled over the years and still haven’t gotten over the hump even with acquiring the best player on the planet.
“I’ve been through losing so much in this league and finally get a taste of what the playoffs going to feel like. I’m excited,” Russell said.
“Like I told them the old story: No one believed you could do it,” Atkinson said. “I think those are the most beautiful moments in sports. Winning a championship, next to that, proving everybody wrong. The predictions. Even their head coach, they even proved me wrong. They’re much better than I thought they were going to be. I didn’t know that until I got to know that group of guys in there. As the season went on, this was possible.”
The Nets wanted to get into the playoffs without relying on the help of other teams. They took the first step by beating the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. Then they knocked off the Pacers by scoring the first nine points of the game. Russell led the way with 20 points and Joe Harris chimed in with 19 points. Brooklyn dominated Indiana at their own game by out-rebounding the Pacers by 19.
The only thing left for the Nets to do is figure out their seeding and playoff matchup. Do they want to face the Philadelphia 76ers or the Toronto Raptors? If Brooklyn wins their last game of the season against the Heat, they’ll clinch the 6-seed and go to Philly. But if they lose and Orlando wins out, they’ll be on their way to the 6.
“It felt better that we didn’t need somebody else to lose,” Nets forward Jared Dudley said. “We controlled our own destiny, came on a road trip and beat Milwaukee, beat Indiana. It was satisfying.”
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