BROOKLYN — Watching the first week of an NBA season with any sort of self-respect means trying as hard as possible not to get carried away for any particular reason. The second week, though? Great time to get hyped. With five-ish games in the books, you can’t crown a champion, but it’s enough to know who’s playing decent basketball and to hone in on your pet teams. If you’re listening, the Brooklyn Nets are 3–2 and would like to make a case.
After all, who needs lottery picks to convince a group of guys to play hard? Not Kenny Atkinson, whose aggressive pace-and-space principles have been visibly ingrained in a tough young set of players who led the league in pace last season and are very much back at it. To be fair, the Nets’ 112–107 win over LeBron James and the Cavaliers on Wednesday came thanks to particularly sloppy play from their opposition — a decisive replay review in the final seconds was the deflating ending the game deserved. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said it best: “We’re running around out here, worrying about getting the Brooklyn draft pick when they may want our pick.”
No, the Nets don’t actually have a pick swap with Cleveland. But the implosion of the ill-fated, impatient megadeal with Boston and the mortgaging of what should have been a promising future in a major market has soiled the organization’s reputation for much of this decade. As a new front office and coaching staff have taken the reins, it’s increasingly obvious that some of it has been a little unfair. Jeremy Lin is already done for the season, D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee issue, and yet sometimes, life gifts you a career-high 22 points from Spencer Dinwiddie. They’ve won three straight home games to start the season and can state a case against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Friday.
The recipe in Brooklyn thus far has included athletic, versatile talent, running as often as possible, and shooting as many threes as possible…as often as possible. It’s an extreme variant of a league-wide trend, and the Nets have looked well-drilled enough to continue stealing games. “We got out, got stops and really put the pressure on them with our running habits,” said Atkinson. He went on to praise his players’ conditioning on their first back-to-back of the season. “These type of wins, you feel good about your program,” Atkinson said after the game. “It’s a good effort, there’s guys coming off the bench [to contribute], as a coach these are the wins you really cherish.”
Despite being outshot percentage-wise, the Nets attempted 93 shots and 46 threes to their opponents’ 81 and 35. Those extra attempts (and to be fair, a lot of unforced Cavs turnovers) tend to mean extra baskets. The aggressiveness helped stake them to an 11-point third quarter lead, and it was enough margin for error to hold off a ridiculous final stretch from LeBron James, and help survive a slew of missed fourth-quarter free throws that nearly gave the game back. Whether it’s consistent play against loafing teams (they held the Hawks off convincingly on Sunday) or stealing dramatic wins on off-nights against the NBA’s upper crust, it’s enough to see Brooklyn sneaking into the realm of 30ish wins for the first time since 2014–15. “They just go out there and play,” said Cavs forward Kevin Love. “They let it fly.”
“We’re not the same team that we were last year,” says Nets guard Allen Crabbe. (It should be noted that Crabbe was not on the team last year.) A shrewd summer from general manager Sean Marks landed D’Angelo Russell, who’s probably still too young to be classified as a reclamation project, for the venerable Brook Lopez. The Nets took on DeMarre Carroll’s contract for the Raptors’ protected first-rounder, and the 31-year-old swingman has looked rather spry, averaging 15 points, six rebounds and 1.5 steals in the early-going and establishing himself as a threat from deep.
It’s a group that seems to like playing together, and comes with a bit of promise, too. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been Brooklyn’s most-improved player after permanently shifting down to power forward, where his energy and defensive switchability shine. Caris LeVert looks like a future rotation player, and Russell’s transition playmaking fits neatly into the philosophy. Whether or not Russell lives up to his pre-draft billing as a future star, the talent well’s far from dry, and the speed and physicality of the Nets’ early play has made for a gripping-enough watch.
Perhaps it’s a flash in the pan or maybe Brooklyn can actually keep it together enough to make a dent in the vaunted eight-seed race. Regardless, without their draft pick, why tank? “It’s the NBA, and there’s another game in two days, but I think it shows we’re making progress,” said Atkinson. “We’re not going to celebrate all night long, but I do think we should feel good about ourselves.” Like a beacon of light shining brightly across a sea of bad Eastern Conference league pass games, your 2017–18 Brooklyn Nets.