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Nets drop debut but serve notice

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson calls to his players during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

When an NBA team goes down by 23 points, that typically erases any chance of an exciting game. When the team with the worst projected record in the league trails a surefire playoff team by 23 in a fourth quarter on the road, it’s essentially lights out.

But someone forgot to tell Bojan Bogdanovic and the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday.

No, the Nets didn’t win their season opener, but they came within a single possession of erasing a 23-point deficit against the playoff-bound Boston Celtics. Bogie led a late charge that cut the Boston lead to three before his and Justin Hamilton’s back-to-back misses forced Brooklyn to settle for a 122-117 final decision.

They lost, but not before making the Celtics take notice: the Nets have the depth and character to make things tough.

The final standings in April won’t know that Brooklyn lost by five instead of 20. But these Nets know, and it’s the kind of confidence-building run that could foment belief in the culture coach Kenny Atkinson is trying to establish. Part of that culture is a commitment to being the team that doesn’t give up, as several Nets told us throughout the preseason.

“That’s where it has to start for us. We have to be the hardest-playing team, and from there we have a chance to win,” Jeremy Lin told TFB in mid-October. Lin had 18 points in the opener, but watched from the sideline while a cast of mostly reserves engineered the furious comeback. “That’s just how it has to be. It has to be our identity.”

Lin’s three-point play in the fourth helped Brooklyn trim that 23-point lead to 17. That’s where the margin was (118-101) when Atkinson finally decided to empty his bench with four minutes left. Not long after that, reserves like Chris McCullough and Joe Harris had changed the complexion of the contest.

In almost exactly a minute’s time, the Nets reeled off seven straight to make it a 10-point game. McCullough scored on a runner, and then Harris nailed a three before setting up a Trevor Booker layup. Meanwhile, the defense forced Boston into eight straight misses and a couple of turnovers.

Granted, Brooklyn wasn’t exactly facing Boston’s best at that point. Their opposition for that first mini-run was a band of Celtic reserves that included Jaylen Brown, Gerald Green, Terry Rozier, Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko. But when a Bogie layup cut the Boston lead to eight with 2:07 remaining, things were serious enough that Celtics coach Brad Stevens put all five resting starters back in the game.

And it barely slowed the hardworking Nets.

The next bucket belonged to Celtics guard Avery Bradley, laying in his own miss. But Brooklyn answered with seven more unanswered points (Bojan putback, Booker dunk, Bojan triple) to make it 120-117. When Harris picked off a pass on the ensuing possession, Brooklyn had a chance to do the unthinkable: come all the way back from 23 down.

Of course, it didn’t go down quite that way. Bogdanovic missed a forced three, and Brooklyn bought itself another shot with a McCullough board. The Nets brought Hamilton back for a designed play to yield a corner attempt for the sharpshooting center, but it rimmed out.

In all, Brooklyn outworked Boston to the tune of 28-8 over a seven-minute stretch, including a couple of minutes against the Celtics’ starting five. The run was further evidence that this Nets team — whether they win games or not — will be a gritty, fun team to watch. We’ve said it already in our TFB coverage of this year’s Nets: this team quietly employs a fair number of rotation-quality players. And they have a good blend of youthful energy and veterans who know how to ride out the ebbs and flows of an NBA game.

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets forward Justin Hamilton (41) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. Thomas scored 25 points as the Celtics defeated the Nets 122-117. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The moral victory of those final seven minutes wasn’t Brooklyn’s only consolation prize in the opener. The Nets got encouraging performances from Lin, Bogdanovic (team-high 21) and Harris (16). But perhaps the most important revelation was that they may have a solid NBA player in Hamilton.

When we examined Brooklyn’s shaky frontcourt depth, we didn’t exactly find solace in his 49 total NBA games with three franchises, or the fact that he spent last year in Spain after failing to land a deal here. He looked like a bit of a Hail Mary option for rotational minutes. But his Nets debut was encouraging, even beyond his 19-and-10 stat line. Hamilton did more than just convert pick-and-pop jumpers; he worked around the basket, scored opportunistically and just generally looked like he belonged. While he was mostly absent from the 28-8 run, he was part of the reason the Nets were able to stay within striking distance.

On the other hand, the Nets are still waiting to get their captain on track. It was easy to shrug away Brook Lopez’s exhibition stats — .472 true shooting, anemic rebound percentages and the worst net rating of any rotation regular — as meaningless preseason noise. But Wednesday’s game officially brought those problems to the regular season. Lopez was 1-for-7, and the Nets were outscored by 25 points per 100 possessions with him out there.

It’s likely a case of acclimation for Lopez. The game was played at a much higher pace than the Lopez-era Nets are used to, and even the speed within individual possessions is something new for the Stanford grad. Atkinson’s offense packs far more actions into every play. Lopez never appears lost or out-of-sync, but perhaps the rhythm will improve as he gets more used to a system that barely resembles last year’s Nets playbook, which consisted largely of isos and post plays. With a plugged-in Lopez, the more diverse Nets offense should be fun to watch.

In the meantime, the Nets at least have proof that the character and gumption of their team is there. They have the same number of wins they had before their season officially got underway, but now they have seven minutes of game film to speak to the identity of the new-era Nets.

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