Kenny Atkinson doesn’t want to hear that the Nets should be looking to avoid playing top-seeded Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs.
Especially without a postseason berth even being sealed, but also because defending NBA champion Toronto still owns the second-best record in the conference despite the offseason defection of star Kawhi Leonard.
“I don’t want to play Toronto or Milwaukee. I think the push for us is to get in,” Atkinson said after practice Tuesday in Brooklyn. “I really have so much respect for Toronto. I think they’re a championship contender like the Bucks are.
“You can say whatever for the teams after that, but especially if [Marc] Gasol is healthy, you don’t want to play [the Raptors]. For us that doesn’t really matter. We are not trying to jockey for position, we’re trying to get in the dance and then perform well.”
The Bucks beat the Raptors 108-97 on Tuesday night, improving to an NBA-best 50-8 record — eight games ahead of Toronto in the East — and on pace for 71 wins.
The seventh-place Nets (26-30) are 1½ games ahead of No. 8 Orlando and six clear of No. 9 Washington, entering their road game Wednesday against the Wizards.
“No, we are aware. It’s almost like the unspoken word, or the elephant in the room,” Atkinson said. “We all know these guys, they follow you guys [in the media]. They read you. They understand, which is great about being a pro coach.
“You don’t write it down or write it on the chalkboard — ‘Playoffs!’ with an exclamation point. But it’s like man, we’re pros we know what’s at stake. We know what each game means going forward.”
After his team returned to the postseason last spring following a three-year absence, Atkinson continues to emphasize the importance of qualifying this year despite All-Star additions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving being out for the season with injuries.
“I told the guys this is an exciting time, because there are teams that have nothing to play for right now,” Atkinson said. “We’re in that mix where we’re playing for something. You say what’s the big deal? Well, we went a long time without having that. That’s why that rhetoric of next year is ‘No.’ This is exciting for us, for this group, for this organization right now, to compete, to play for something more important.”
Asked about the goaltending non-call on his fourth-quarter drive against Orlando’s Mo Bamba, Joe Harris smiled and said, “Um, the refs made the call they thought they saw, so you gotta live with it.”
Durant, out for the season with a torn Achilles, was shooting jump shots after practice. The Nets still haven’t announced a date for Irving’s season-ending shoulder surgery.