The Nets are missing their three best players, two of them All-N.B.A.-caliber centerpieces. And yet, they’re doing just enough to get by.
For that, the Nets have chiefly turned to two players who made them such a watchable team last year — Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen — two core pieces of the scrappy, upstart squad that unexpectedly made the playoffs.
On Friday afternoon, the Nets faced a significant test in the Boston Celtics, an Atlantic Division rival that is shaping up to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. After losing in Boston earlier in the week, the Nets recovered nicely at home, winning 112-107. These two games were supposed to be focused on Boston’s crossing paths with Kyrie Irving again, but it wasn’t to be.
The win moved the Nets to above .500 for the second time this season at 10-9. And even more remarkably, the Nets are now 6-2 without Kyrie Irving, who has been sidelined with a shoulder injury, and Caris LeVert, who has been out longer than Irving with a thumb injury but is expected back in a month. This is, of course, not including Kevin Durant, who is expected to miss the entire season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in last year’s N.B.A. finals when he was with the Golden State Warriors.
It’s rare for a team to play this well missing this many pieces — just ask this year’s last-place Warriors. But this franchise’s culture under Kenny Atkinson, now in his fourth season as head coach, has been one of resilience. The Nets were rarely expected to win. They usually were not the most talented team on the floor. But they pulled out games anyway. And through it all, Atkinson has never been one to get too high or low about, well, anything.
“The record says we’re about average,” Atkinson said after Friday’s game. “I don’t want to start saying we’re ready for the lead or start to talk about top seeds. I think we’re still building this thing. I think this stretch has really helped us. We do have depth.”
This last stretch has pulled the Nets from the brink of a potentially disastrous season to playoff contention. They were 4-7 when Irving went down. But in spite of missing Durant, Irving and LeVert, the Nets are slightly ahead of their pace from last year, when they were 8-11 after 19 games.
Dinwiddie, ever the professional sparkplug, scored 32 points and dished out 11 assists on Friday. Since Irving has been out, Dinwiddie has been in the starting lineup and has carried the Nets offensively, averaging 24.5 points a game and getting to the free-throw line an exceptional 7.5 times a game, both of which are well above his career averages. For context, extrapolated over the whole season, 7.5 would place Dinwiddie seventh in the N.B.A. in free-throw attempts a game.
Dinwiddie’s attacks to the basket have also opened up opportunities for Allen, who is playing the best basketball of his career. In Irving’s absence, Allen has chipped in 15.6 points (mostly off dunks) and 12.6 rebounds a game. Eight games is a small sample size given how long the N.B.A. season is. But Allen looks more comfortable on the floor with his passing and ball handling. He has clearly expanded his game, and if he can keep up some semblance of this production, Allen might be a long shot All-Star, depending on the Nets record.
“He’s all over the place,” Atkinson said of Allen. “He’s on every board. He’s at the rim protecting. He’s our quarterback on defense. Anytime we miss a shot, it seems like he’s cleaning up. I’m going to be honest: That’s not something we emphasize. He’s just kind of doing it.”
Allen, 21, said in an interview that he saw his growth as a natural progression of being in his third year. He has more muscle now. In pickup games, he said, he was putting the ball on the floor more and working on facilitating. Now, he’s trying to add that to actual gameplay.
“You see it with everybody,” Allen said. “Hopefully, I’m going to have a year like Caris had last year. He came out, in his third year, and played a lot better.”
Since Irving’s injury, the Nets have essentially flipped their team identity. Before he got hurt, the Nets were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Entering Friday’s game, the Nets have been a top-10 defense in the seven games post Irving’s injury, in large part because of Allen’s rim protection. Small sample size or not, Irving’s defensive effort has never been one of his strengths.
Atkinson said Irving would miss at least one more game — their next game is on Sunday against the Heat — but that he had returned to doing on-court drills. In the locker room after Friday’s win, Dinwiddie told reporters he hadn’t yet spoken to Irving about readjusting the offense once Irving is back.
“As great of a talent as he is, we need to figure out how to work around what he prefers to do versus the other way around,” Dinwiddie said.
That’s just it. Adjustment should be a two-way process. Irving is a brilliant basketball player. He might be the best ballhandler in N.B.A. history. When he was healthy, he pushed the Nets to be among the fastest teams in the league. Their offense is clearly better with him on the court. But as his tenure with the Celtics showed, other players are less empowered when Irving is in charge of the offense — and the net effect of that may be a drain on team chemistry.
The Nets also have been receiving contributions from the bench. Garrett Temple has provided crucial 3-point shooting for a team that had struggled from deep amid Irving’s absence. But the injuries have also forced Atkinson to give key minutes to “Break Glass In Case Of Emergency” type players like Theo Pinson.
In that respect, Irving’s return will be a welcome one for this team. The Nets are finally getting the wins they need — and now they need some bodies back. But there has always been a concern about continuity, and whether the culture from last year would carry on to this year. Dinwiddie himself said, in response to a question about why he was getting more calls this year, “When you’ve got max players and stuff like that, it changes the tenor of the team.”