There are still 78 games left in the NBA’s regular season, and we will take it on faith that most of those nights will go a little differently than this one did. That is certainly how Kenny Atkinson is rooting.
“It’s four games,” the Nets coach said, accompanied by what looked like something between a smile and a grimace. “Hopefully after 40 games we’ll do better.”
We are not near the neighborhood of Panic City with the Nets, not yet, not even with a 1-3 start, not even after they were run out of the gym by the previously winless Pacers 118-108 at Barclays Center. The Pacers were without their best player, Victor Oladipo (out until December, at least, as he recovers from a knee-tendon injury), and then lost center Myles Turner for the final 38 minutes of the game.
Didn’t matter. They got one open look after another on one end of the floor, and benefited from the Nets’ chronic generosity (19 turnovers) on the other. They had four players score 20 or more points led by Domantas Sabonis, who had a game-high 29, and guard Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 21 and handed out 13 assists.
The Nets spent most of the preseason assuring us that it was going to take some time for them to jell, to get to know each other, to look like they’re on the same page together, and across the first 197 minutes they have seemed intent on living up — or down — to those self-prognostications.
“Seventy-eight games left,” Kyrie Irving said with a smile. “I’ll tell you guys that number every day if you need me to.”
If one of the early-season parlor games around the Nets is going to be identifying Irving’s mood, then on this night it was upbeat and positive. He’d done his share, as usual (28 points, seven rebounds, six assists) but the Pacers made a strong charge midway through the fourth quarter and there was nothing he or anyone else could do about that.
“We’ve got to get to know one another, and make some adjustments,” Irving said, before adding the team slogan: “It’s still early.”
It is, and the memory of last year’s 8-18 start (and 34-22 finish) is still fresh, and last year’s recovery didn’t come with a side of muscle memory for many of the core Nets, as it would now. Irving is a significant X factor to toss into any mixing bowl, but there’s too much talent for this to stay an issue for long.
But it might stay one for a bit. Houston comes to Barclays on Friday night, and if the Nets continue to play defense with the benign indifference with which they’ve played it so far, the Rockets could score 160 points. And the offense isn’t clicking near enough to make up for that haphazard play.
“We’re not running anything,” the ever-accountable, ever-brutally honest Atkinson said. “In training camp you’re practicing a lot, you have nice flow, you kind of know what you’re doing. I think we’ve lost a little bit of our structure and organization, which is natural with a new team and new guys.”
“Like I said, I think we have to play with each other more, get to know each other, get on the same page in all aspects.”
There is time for that. There is time for the Nets’ most gifted offensive players — Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert — to develop the chemistry that was always going to be the spine of this team’s character. When they peak, and they will peak, the offense will be a show unto itself and it should feed their defensive effort, too.
When they peak.
For now, the growing pains are obvious and they are unsightly. The Timberwolves ruined the party here opening night, and the Knicks would’ve backed that up two nights later if not for some late-game heroics from Irving. They blew a late lead in Memphis and had their night ruined at the buzzer.
Wednesday night they were trucked by a much lesser team. It adds up to 1-3. There are — all together now — 78 games left. They will play better. They will be better. But right now they look every night like they were introduced during the layup line.
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