|Nets' playoff push begins with visit from Blazers|
A little over three years ago, Sean Marks was officially introduced as the general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, and three months later Kenny Atkinson was named as the coach of the rebuilding project.
Two painful seasons followed, but in Year 3, the Nets are in the playoff picture in a crowded Eastern Conference race.
Brooklyn resumes its playoff push Thursday night when it hosts the Portland Trail Blazers, who are starting a season-high seven-game road trip.
At 30-29, the Nets headed into the All-Star break with a winning record for the first time since the 2012-13 season. When they last reached the playoffs in 2014-15, the Nets held a 21-31 record at the break and finished at 38-44.
Brooklyn enters its final 23 games in sixth place in the East, two games ahead of Charlotte, 2 1/2 ahead of Detroit and Miami and three in front of Orlando.
"I think it's going to be a dogfight," Atkinson told reporters during a conference call Tuesday. "A lot of those teams are playing well. Orlando has really picked it up, Detroit has really picked it up, Charlotte has a ton of experience with a veteran group.
"Our sole focus has got to be us continuing to play good basketball and close out these games in a positive fashion."
The Nets are in playoff contention in a season where they were 8-18 on Dec. 5. They are 22-11 in their last 33 games since losing eight straight, and 14-3 at home since starting their turnaround with an overtime win over Toronto on Dec. 7.
Brooklyn has six losses in its last nine games but went into the All-Star break by getting an electrifying 148-139 triple-overtime victory at Cleveland on Feb. 13. D'Angelo Russell, who scored six points in the All-Star game, had 36 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the thriller in Cleveland.
Russell is averaging a career-high 20.3 points and 6.6 assists and has 10 30-point games this season, three more than his first three seasons combined. During Brooklyn's turnaround, Russell is averaging 22.1 points, 7.4 assists while shooting 45.6 percent and 38.2 percent from 3-point range.
Portland (34-23) heads into its final 25 games in fourth place in the West. The Trail Blazers are one game ahead of Houston and three games behind third-place Oklahoma City.
The Blazers headed into the break impressively by dominating the fourth quarter in their 129-107 home win over the Warriors on Feb. 13. Damian Lillard scored 29 points, and Portland outscored Golden State 35-12 in the final frame, after neither team led by more than five through three quarters.
"I like it," Lillard said of Portland's record at the break. "I think it's better than where we have been in the past. A big win going into the break, that's a positive, but obviously for us, I think we look back at some of the opportunities we let slip away -- the Dallas game (a 102-101 loss on the road), the Miami game at home (a 118-108 loss).
"All things considered, I think we all like where we are."
Portland will also have a new frontcourt option at its disposal to help a team whose 47.6 rebounds per game rank third in the league. The Blazers signed Enes Kanter before beating Golden State, and the big man is expected to make his debut with the team Thursday.
Kanter averaged 14 points and 10.5 rebounds in 44 games for the New York Knicks before being bought out of his contract two weeks ago. He did not play in nine of his final 12 games as a Knick but posted double-doubles in three games against the Nets earlier this season.
Portland is 8-2 in the last 10 meetings with the Nets.
--Field Level Media