Nets face playoff contenders during tough home stretch

With just over three weeks left in the NBA regular season, the Nets are sixth in the Eastern Conference, with a realistic chance of finishing as high as fourth or as low as seventh, which would put them in the play-in round.

So it makes sense for the new-look team to get into postseason mode now.

They will face a tough test during a four-game homestand, which will open Thursday night when they host one of the top teams in the West, the surprising Kings, at Barclays Center.

Head coach Jacque Vaughn acknowledged that he needed to prepare his squad for the next step, which is why he leaned on his starters heavily during their loss at Oklahoma City on Tuesday, even after their hard-fought win Sunday in the unforgiving environment of mile-high Denver.

“I kind of went reverse and played the starting five heavy minutes,’’ Vaughn said following the loss Tuesday that ended a 3-2 road trip. “There’s something psychological and mental about that. Can you be at the end of a road trip and somehow manage to get a win? Can you play heavy minutes and worry about the next day the next day? So it was a little bit of a challenge for that group [Tuesday] to see how they will respond.”

Cam Johnson, one of the Knicks starting five, logged heavy minutes in the loss against the Thunder alongside his fellow starters in preparation for playoffs.
Noah K. Murray-NY Post

For much of the first half against the Thunder, the Nets did. But they were on the wrong side of an 18-3 third-quarter run and never recovered.

Their schedule for the next four games at Barclays Center won’t make it any easier.

The Kings will be followed by the Nuggets, who have not played well of late, but remain the top seed in the West.

Two straight games against a Cavaliers team that is currently in fourth place in the Eastern Conference will end the homestand.

The Nets are looking to close the gap on the Cavaliers and the fifth-seeded Knicks to make sure they avoid the play-in round.

The starting five of Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Nic Claxton and Dorian Finney-Smith each logged at least 34 minutes on Tuesday.

Bridges, who continues to play at an elite level, averaging 26.3 points per game since arriving in Brooklyn, played 38 minutes in each of the previous two games after he logged 47 in an overtime loss at Minnesota last Friday.

Mikal Bridges looks to drive to the basket as Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray defends.
Mikal Bridges looks to drive to the basket as Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray defends.

“That’s what playoff basketball is about,’’ Vaughn said of the heavy workload for his starters. “You’re going to have to play every other day, and you’re going to play high minutes. Can you get a win? Can you respond the next day? So prepping that a little bit was kind of my psychological way of looking at it. We just didn’t get it done [Tuesday]. So we should have some juice to play.”

It’s a lesson Johnson said he has taken to heart.

“The biggest thing is we know how to play to win: scrappy, gutty, and dirty,’’ Johnson said. “We’re not playing pretty out there. That’s how the game starts to favor us, so I think we need to get back to that and compete at a high level.”

Bridges lamented what he thought was a lack of energy on the Nets’ part and added they have to keep the underdog mentality they’ve had since he, Johnson and Dinwiddie were acquired in the trades of stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

“When we’re up going into the half, we have to play like we’re down,’’ Bridges said of the Nets’ ideal mindset. “I think we’re good when we’re down at the half and we play with a spark. If we’re up at the half, we have to play like we’re down and play with that energy.”

Bridges has done his part, leading the Nets in scoring in six of their last seven games.

Durant and Irving were still on the Nets the last time they faced the Kings, although Irving was serving a suspension.

The Kings won in a 32-point rout in Sacramento.

The Kings are well on their way to proving they’re for real, thanks to De’Aaron Fox and Domantis Sabonis.

Additional reporting by Brian Lewis