All the makings of another lost season in Brooklyn were there.
The Nets had lost their leading scorer and then eight straight games. Talk of tanking was growing louder.
Just two weeks ago, a lottery appearance seemed a certainty.
Maybe the Nets are headed to the playoffs instead.
An out-of-nowhere turnaround that started when they stunned the top team in the league and really gained attention when they beat LeBron James and the Lakers has given the Nets seven consecutive wins, the longest current streak in the league and matching their best run since moving to Brooklyn six years ago.
Ten games under .500 when they took the floor to host league-leading Toronto on Dec. 7, the Nets (15-18) have risen within a half-game of eighth place and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s really encouraging,” center Jarrett Allen said. “It’s showing all the hard work we put in during the summer is now paying off.”
Allen authored the signature highlight during the streak when he blocked James’ dunk attempt early in a 115-110 victory Tuesday, but it’s what the Nets did on the other end of the floor that impressed James and has become the envy of many opponents.
There is no superstar in a league where having one is supposed to be mandatory for success — though the Nets are hoping to entice one this summer. So Brooklyn focuses on keeping the ball moving among a series of interchangeable players on offense, and relying on point guards D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie to make plays off the dribble when necessary.
“Everybody they put on the floor can make plays. So they keep you off-balance,” James said. “It starts with D-Lo and Spencer, and the rest of those guys can play the game as well.”
The victory over the Lakers was the fourth straight game in which the Nets scored 115 points — they had at least 125 in the previous three games, tying a franchise record. And even when they were finally slowed down Wednesday, lacking some energy after the emotional victory over the Lakers, they pulled out a 96-93 victory in Chicago.
“I just think it’s growth, it’s maturity,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “It’s physical and mental growth.”
The Nets have played a league-high 21 of those “clutch” games, where the margin has been five or fewer points during the last five minutes, but kept losing them during their skid. They blew a 23-point lead during the final game of it, a 114-112 loss to Oklahoma City on Dec. 5, and it was clear how much they missed Caris LeVert.
The guard had already made two game-winning shots this season and was averaging 18.4 points when he dislocated his right foot Nov. 12 in Minnesota. The eight-game skid started soon after, which some Nets fans looked at as a blessing.
After years of watching Boston bolster its team with the high draft picks acquired from the Nets in a doomed trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013, Brooklyn finally has its own pick this summer, seemingly making this the right time to fall toward the bottom and hope to score big in the lottery.
But Atkinson, who was beginning to be the target of criticism for the first time as coach, dismissed that idea. Not only that, he seemed to put more pressure on himself to make sure the losing stopped.
“I don’t think if we come out of here with the same record, 28 wins, we’ll be happy,” Atkinson said recently. “I think we’ve got to show progress.”
That would certainly help when they go free-agent hunting in July, armed with plenty of salary space. The Nets had neither the picks nor money to acquire All-Stars when he arrived, so general manager Sean Marks had to find other ways to fill the roster.
Russell was a former No. 2 pick who the Lakers were looking to move. Dinwiddie had been waived twice and was playing in the NBA G League. The 20-year-old Allen was taken with the No. 22 pick in the 2017 draft.
Marks has focused on the Nets’ long-term stability, refusing to use their record as the means to quantify progress. But the players who had endured so much losing don’t plan to settle for a brief stretch of winning.
“I don’t think we’re satisfied,” Allen said. “I think the losing streak really put an itch on our back and we’re still trying to scratch it.”
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