BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Kenny Atkinson jumped out of his chair in a mad rage.
During the Nets’ Wednesday night matchup against the Cavaliers, the ball had clearly gone out of bounds off LeBron James, but the referees gave him the benefit of the doubt.
When you’re the best player in the world, you get that call. When you have otherworldly basketball talent, you get that call.
Even without three of their best players — Isaiah Thomas (hip), Dwyane Wade (knee), and Derrick Rose (ankle) — Cleveland has light years more talent than Brooklyn. Hell, it has more talent than most teams.
But talent alone wasn’t enough to carry the Cavaliers past the well-coached Nets. Instead, Brooklyn pulled off an improbable 112-107 win over the defending Eastern Conference champions.
And we didn’t even mention that Brooklyn was without D’Angelo Russell (knee) and Jeremy Lin (ruptured patella).
“These type of wins are ... you feel good about your program,” Atkinson said during his postgame press conference. “It’s a group effort. As a coach, these are the wins you really cherish.”
Two years ago, the Nets would have never come close to touching the Cavaliers. Entering Wednesday night, Cleveland was 9-2 against Brooklyn since The King returned home.
But this is a new team under Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, who took control two summers ago. And LeBron, who has played the Nets at least twice a year every year in his career, made a note of how Brooklyn has changed over the past two seasons under Atkinson and Marks.
“They’re trying to play the game the right way,” James conceded after Cleveland’s loss. “That’s what they’re doing. They’ve got some good young pieces, those guys and they’re playing the right way and they’re sharing the ball.”
The Nets are not the laughing stock of the NBA anymore
As currently constructed, Brooklyn is not a championship team. It might not even be a playoff team.
But five games into the season, the Nets have three victories, including one over the East’s juggernaut. The Nets didn’t have Russell — their de facto leader on a fresh, young team — and are without Lin for the season. But Wednesday night’s victory embodies the type of selfless, gritty team Atkinson and Marks have assembled in Brooklyn.
“Brooklyn Grit” is what they call it.
The LeBron James point guard experiment bore fruit to another out-of-this-world stat line. James finished with 29 points on 60 percent shooting, 13 assists, 10 rebounds, and four blocks against the Nets. Only Charles Barkley in 1986 and 2010 MVP LeBron have had those numbers in NBA history, according to Basketball Reference.
But it was a team effort that helped the Nets overcome a Herculean LeBron performance and win despite being labeled 8-point underdogs.
Six Brooklyn players scored in double figures, including 22 from Spencer Dinwiddie, who drilled the deep three that put Cleveland in trouble late in the fourth.
The go ahead triple from @SDinwiddie_25 that secured the @BrooklynNets win! #WeGoHard pic.twitter.com/HRZrgPMoki— NBA (@NBA) October 26, 2017
The Nets also pelted the Cavaliers from downtown. They threw up 46 three-pointers and hit 17 of them. The offensive freedom Atkinson’s created in Brooklyn is palpable.
“They shoot the long ball and they shoot it,” James said. “They’re just playing free, free of mind, that’s exactly how they’re playing. They’re moving it, they’re sharing it and that’s good ball.”
“They just go out there and play,” Kevin Love added. “They let it fly. They drive the ball, drive-and-kick and then just play up-tempo. I think they want to score the basketball. They use it as a weapon and they showed us that tonight.”
That’s the difference under Brooklyn’s new regime
Sean Kilpatrick was a member of the Nets for part of the 2015-16 season before Atkinson took over as head coach. In fact, he was Marks’s first signing and earned a roster spot after signing a 10-day contract. He and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson became the longest-tenured Brooklyn players after Brook Lopez was dealt to the Lakers over the summer.
But while Hollis-Jefferson vanished into thin air after Brooklyn’s well-earned victory against Cleveland, Kilpatrick admitted that Atkinson and Marks have changed the Nets’ culture for the better.
“You’re now dealing with people who have a different sense of the game. That’s something that you’ve got to get used to,” Kilpatrick told SB Nation. “We all know that before it was a lot different, but as soon as Sean Marks and [Kenny Atkinson] came, they were able to switch the culture.
“There’s a lot of ball movement, and not only that, but we play with a lot of effort. Everyone on this team — we care. And I think that’s something that we’ve been missing here in Brooklyn. And the fact that we’ve been able to have it now under Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson, I think that’s something good.”
Atkinson didn’t want to read too much into the win over Cleveland. It’s a win over a team that could care less about the regular season. The Cavaliers play for May and June, everyone knows that.
But if Brooklyn’s five-point win over the defending champs showed anything on Wednesday, it’s this: Atkinson likes slow progression, and the Nets are slowly progressing.
“It’s the NBA and there’s another game in two days, but I think it shows we’re making progress,” Atkinson said. “We’re not going to celebrate all night because of this, but I do think we should feel good about ourselves. ... It’s a great team, it’s a good win for our organization.”