Nets dreaming of big finish now that 2 key cogs are finally healthy

Nets dreaming of big finish now that 2 key cogs are finally healthy

The Nets finally exceeded last season’s win total Thursday in Charlotte. Yet they don’t want to top it by just a single victory, but with a slew of them. Coach Kenny Atkinson said he is convinced getting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert back not only healthy, but in top form, will be the key down the stretch.

“I want to end the season with significantly more, not one or two, I don’t think that’s [enough],” Atkinson said. “Sure, I think in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking, ‘How much better are we?’

“I’m frustrated we were on a pretty good pace to really shatter it. Now that we’ve got this group healthy and we’ve got this group together, we’re going to close it out and we’re going to improve it by a decent margin instead of a little margin.”

The Nets are clearly better. But to be fair, it’s not a high bar to clear: They were an NBA-worst 20-62 last season. But when Atkinson refers to his Nets being healthy and together, Hollis-Jefferson and LeVert are a big part of that.

It’s hard to overstate how important the pair are and will be — not only for the final 16 games of this campaign, but as building blocks for the next — with the Nets having picked up both of their options for a combined bargain of $4.1 million.

Rondae Hollis-JeffersonRobert Sabo

Thursday just underscored their importance. They combined for 40 points, 16 rebounds and 12 assists as the Nets built a 21-point cushion and cruised against a Hornets team that had bullied them two weeks earlier in LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson’s absence.

“Huge. They were both outstanding on both sides of the ball. They set the tone with their energy and their athleticism. They were both really good, you could argue the difference-makers,” Atkinson said. “Caris, he got wherever he wanted to with the ball. And Rondae just helps our defense so much. We’re so much better with him on the floor. Big, big contribution from those two guys.”

The Nets are going to need big contributions from the 23-year-old players.

LeVert had 22 points and eight assists at Charlotte, a solid encore to a career-high 27 points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals Sunday against the Clippers. Back to getting to the rim regularly, he’s averaging 19.7 points on 51.1 percent shooting and 43.8 percent from deep in his last three.

After missing five games with a concussion and right knee sprain, he has quickly returned not just to pre-injury form, but his red-hot December streak.

“I feel like it. I don’t even really think about the injury. I just try to think about getting better every game, winning games,” LeVert said. “Yeah for sure, I felt like it never left me.”

Hollis-Jefferson’s climb was more uphill, not shocking considering he missed 11 straight games with a groin injury. But after averaging just 10.4 points on 37.8 percent shooting in his first five games back, he broke out Thursday with 18 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.

“Caris got back to it a little quicker than I did. Got to give credit to Caris for competing since he’s been back,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “But for me, it’s just taking it game-by-game.

“I can say I got my groove back. But it’s just about taking it game-by-game. I’m locked in and got the job done, and now it’s just about focusing on our next game.”

Atkinson has wavered on returning Hollis-Jefferson to the starting lineup, but his 30 minutes off the bench Thursday were third on the team, while LeVert’s 29:35 were more than starters D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. Far more important than starting LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson is playing them, and it seems Atkinson will do just that as he shortens his rotation down the stretch.

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