CHICAGO — The Nets know that, despite their record, they’re not among the NBA’s elite teams — and the proof is that halfway through the regular season, they hadn’t beaten any of the league’s top teams.
Their game Wednesday night versus the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls — with Nic Claxton out — was the Nets’ latest chance to start changing that before they get to the postseason.
“You know, I think the guys know,” coach Steve Nash said. “They want to get a good win against Chicago because we’ve lost to them twice. I don’t think we’re thinking about how are we against all elite teams. It’s just [this game]. And our goal is to be ready to beat elite teams in April and May.
“So, we got so much thrown out at us, so many guys in and out of the lineup. We don’t go ‘Oh, man.’ I think I said before, we’re not in that category. We’ve got to get there by the end of the season. That’s our goal. Hopefully when we get some health, we get some continuity, we get a runway and we can put ourselves into that category. So [Wednesday] is a great opportunity to play against an elite team, play well, grow, try to get a win, but most importantly keep getting better.”
Just how much better the Nets must get was driven home by the fact they had tried and failed against every single elite team they faced this season.
The Nets came into United Center 0-8 against the top four teams in both conferences. Two of those losses came at the hands of Chicago, which the Nets trailed by 2 ½ games entering Wednesday.
“With this group, our mindset is we want to be a championship team. So we definitely acknowledge that we haven’t been successful against the top-tier teams,” said rookie David Duke Jr., who had started the last four games.
“But that is one thing that we’re trying to take step-by-step to get there. Acknowledge the things we still need to work on and know that even if we do pull out wins, how are we winning? Who are we winning against? Try to hold that level still no matter what so we can limit mistakes and try to buy into being a championship-contending team.”
What the Nets need to work on is their defense.
The Nets had allowed 116.4 points per game in their losses to elite clubs. They were defeated 118-95 in a Nov. 8 trip to United Center. They led that game going into the fourth quarter, only to implode in getting outscored 42-17 in the final period.
“Look, I think understanding the big picture and those losses have learned us big lessons. Big lessons,” Patty Mills said. “For us, it’s just about putting them in the bank and growing from that, and continue to develop from those mistakes that we’ve made so we don’t make them again, hit the ground running when the time comes to be able to do that, sooner than later. Saying that, all of these lessons that we’ve either won or more importantly lost, we’ve taken from that.
“I was on a championship team in 2014 [with the Spurs] that was in the exact same position, and we weren’t able to beat the top teams. But we kept banking all those lessons and growing from them and learning from them and putting it together when we needed to the most. With the amount of adjustments we’re going through with trying to get that chemistry right on the floor, that’s where were at and that’s the message I’m trying to push.”
Mills’ Spurs, in the 2013-14 regular season, lost all four matchups against Kevin Durant’s Thunder and split two games with the Heat. In the playoffs, however, they beat Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals and topped Miami for the title.
The Nets can only hope to build toward a similar result.