Nets rock Cleveland in Hollis-Jefferson’s return to action
Third-quarter run highlights Brooklyn’s best effort of young season
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s much-anticipated season debut coincided with the Brooklyn Nets’ best all-around performance of this young season Wednesday night in Cleveland.
That was no coincidence according to Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who watched his budding team improve to 2-2 thanks to the return of the franchise’s longest-tenured player.
“For a guy that was out that long, [he’s] pretty darn good defensively,” noted Atkinson after Hollis-Jefferson amassed eight points, eight rebounds and a steal in 21 minutes off the bench to help Brooklyn to a 102-86 victory over the Cavaliers in front of 19,432 fans Quicken Loans Arena.
Hollis-Jefferson, who had missed Brooklyn’s first three games, the first two due to an abductor injury and the third following the birth of his son, Rylen, last Wednesday, spearheaded the Nets’ best defensive effort since April 2, 2017, when they held Atlanta to 82 points at Barclays Center.
Though he only managed to make three of his 10 shots from the floor and committed a turnover, it was Hollis-Jefferson’s previously missing energy and ability to guard virtually every opposing player that fueled Brooklyn.
“Made a few mistakes offensively, but really helps our defense,” Atkinson added.
“We threw him out there at the point where we’re just switching everything. He can guard [Cleveland point guard Collin] Sexton or he can guard [power forward] Kevin Love, and those guys are invaluable in today’s NBA.”
The fact that Hollis-Jefferson, playing the first game of his fourth season in Brooklyn, has been around longer than any other Net speaks to the ongoing reconstruction project general manager Sean Marks has orchestrated.
It also reveals that he plays a very necessary role in Brooklyn’s quest to regain relevance on the NBA landscape and perhaps even return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
“He can guard a lot of different guys,” Atkinson said of Hollis-Jefferson, who plays much bigger than his 6-foot-7, 217-pound frame. “His length, 7-foot-3 wingspan, versatility, [he] can guard five positions and he’s a good rebounder.”
Hollis-Jefferson scored six of his points during the Nets’ huge third quarter, a period that has haunted Brooklyn over the past three non-playoff seasons. He had three baskets and three defensive rebounds during the Nets’ 38-17 surge in the quarter, opening an 83-62 bulge for the visitors.
“My energy level was good,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Defensively, making the simple plays. Just being smart and conscious. Your rhythm offensively may not be there. You may miss some shots. But just keep playing, keep rebounding, keep playing defense.”
D’Angelo Russell posted game highs and personal season bests of 18 points and eight assists, Joe Harris continued his hot outside shooting with 16 points, missing just one of his 3-point attempts, and veteran forward Jared Dudley matched Harris from beyond the arc as Brooklyn went a collective 14-of-34 from long range.
Also making his Nets debut Wednesday was Shabazz Napier, who was signed away from Portland by Marks this past summer.
The versatile point guard scored eight points, picked up a pair of steals and handed out an assist as Brooklyn got some much-needed bench depth back following recent injuries to DeMarre Carroll (ankle) and Treveon Graham (hamstring), both of whom are expected to miss extended time.
“It was exciting,” said Napier of his first 15 minutes on the court with his new teammates after sitting out with a hamstring injury.
“Just to be out there again. When you’re away from the game, you miss it a lot. Especially for myself, I love the competitiveness. I was happy to be out there.”
As was Hollis-Jefferson, who will try to continue his defensive mastery when the Nets try to climb above .500 Friday night in New Orleans before coming back to Brooklyn to host the defending two-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors on Sunday evening at Barclays Center.
“I felt like we locked in on defense, we got stops, we pressured the ball, we played smart, we limited turnovers,” Hollis-Jefferson said.
“That’s when we’re at our best, when we’re playing with the pass, we’re being aggressive yet smart, and just playing basketball. Defense, that’s something we take pride in.”
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Over at Barclays Center on Wednesday night, the New York Islanders blew a two-goal third-period lead en route to a 3-2 overtime loss to the visiting Florida Panthers in front of 9,743 fans on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.
Despite a first-period goal by Brock Nelson and a power-play tally by Jordan Eberle in the second, the Islanders (3-4-1) suffered their fourth defeat in the past five games due to a late defensive collapse.
Frank Vatrano and Evgenii Dadanov lit the lamp for Florida in the third period before Mike Hoffman’s power-play winner in overtime forced the Isles to settle for one point on a night they felt they should have picked up two.
“We did it to ourselves a little bit,” Trotz admitted. “We took some penalties, had some turnovers … We just weren’t on our toes enough unfortunately in the third. You don’t want to sit back when you have the lead.”
Robin Lehner stopped 38 of 41 shots for the Isles, who will look to bounce back Saturday night in Philadelphia when they begin a three-game road trip against the Metropolitan Division rival Flyers.
“We have to learn how to win with the lead,” said Eberle. “We’re a team that’s learning structurally. I think we are better structurally, but there are moments in the game, third period with the lead, you need to find a way to win the game.”
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