Atkinson adjustment pays dividends for Nets
Lineup shuffle results in biggest blowout win of Brooklyn era
Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson readily admitted that it was on him to find a solution to Brooklyn’s recent slump following the team’s third consecutive loss in Miami on Saturday night.
“This is a struggle period,” Atkinson admitted after the Nets fell for the 10th time in their last 15 games and lost their grip on sole possession of the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“We obviously have guys coming back [from injury], and it’s up to me to do a better job finding how everybody fits in their role,” he added.
After moving rookie Rodions Kurucs into the power forward spot and sliding sharp-shooting swingman Allen Crabbe into the back court with point guard D’Angelo Russell Monday at Downtown’s Barclays Center, Atkinson appeared to find the right formula for success, albeit for one night.
The lineup shuffle catapulted Brooklyn to its largest margin of victory ever on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, a 127-88 thumping of Dallas in front of a near-capacity crowd of 17,064, many of whom came out to catch a final glimpse of retiring Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki.
“It’s one game,” Atkinson noted after the Nets climbed back to .500 and moved into a virtual tie with Detroit (31-31) for the No. 6 seed. “I think we wanted to change something up, do something a little different.”
By bringing the previously struggling Caris LeVert off the bench alongside the recently returned Spencer Dinwiddie, the Nets finally got their groove back, running out to a 31-21 lead after one quarter and breaking out to an 18-point advantage at the half.
DeMarre Carroll scored 22 points and Kurucs finished with 19 as both connected on five 3-pointers while Russell showed off his distribution skills with Joe Harris (11 points) and Crabbe (eight points) opening the floor via their respective wing positions.
“It was great. We trust coach’s moves,” said Russell.
“At this point in the season, he makes plays, he makes calls, we’ve just got to go with it. I thought today, it was great. I think we may have figured out some type of recipe, just keeping guys going and everybody in attack mode.”
The Nets’ All-Star playmaker finished with 13 points and 11 assists for his eighth double-double of the season, orchestrating Atkinson’s new lineup to perfection as Brooklyn shot a blistering 56.5 percent from the field.
“[Caris] coming off the bench or starting, he told me this morning, ‘I really don’t care coach … as long as I get my minutes.’ He got his minutes,” Atkinson said.
“Allen gives us a little more spacing out there. So, you’ve got Allen and Joe; now you’ve got two shooters. I think that helps D’Angelo out. I think that helps our roll game. Then in that second unit now you’ve got Spencer and Caris who are downhill guys and we’ll put two shooters with them. First look, I really liked it.”
LeVert, who played his best game since returning from a 42-game absence due to a broken foot, scored 18 points and Dinwiddie added 16 as the Nets’ “Bench Mob” buried Dallas in the third quarter.
The Nets opened a 44-point lead before extended garbage time in the final period, most of which was spent honoring Nowitzki.
The surefire Hall of Famer finished with just four points on 2-of-13 shooting, but he was serenaded by Brooklyn fans throughout the final stages of the contest.
“So, I am really appreciative,” Nowitzki said. “I enjoy it, but I enjoy winning a little better.”
The Mavs never came close to doing so, dropping to 6-25 on the road during this swan-song campaign for the greatest player in the history of the franchise.
“It was ugly from start to finish,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle ceded. “When you lose every quarter in an NBA game, you certainly haven’t done what you needed to do, so very disappointing night.”
Brooklyn’s revamped lineup is assured a second look Wednesday when the Nets (33-33) host the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers here in Brooklyn.
After a trip to Atlanta on Saturday and a home game vs. Detroit here next Monday night, the Nets will begin their daunting seven-game road trip across three time zones next Wednesday in Oklahoma City.
That places extra emphasis on getting winning results here in Brooklyn, like the one they got against Nowitzki and the Mavericks Monday night.
“This is definitely a game for us to build off of,” noted Russell. “Coming into this one, we knew we had to get it. We know we’ve got a tough stretch coming up so we need all the confidence we can get.”
Nothing But Net: Nets co-owner Joseph Tsai took in Monday night’s game as did former Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez. … Power forward Treveon Graham missed Monday’s game due to his ongoing back issues, paving the way for Kurucs to jump back into the starting lineup in an unfamiliar position. But despite playing 24 minutes as Atkinson’s Stretch Four instead of his customary small forward spot Monday, the 21-year-old Latvian felt at ease and shot 5-of-7 from 3-point range and 7-of-12 overall. “I mean, I play my game,” Kurucs said of the adjustment to power forward. “I think it’s just my game and my game never changes. You just play your game. Stick with your game and do the things you do well and keep doing them.” Atkinson was noncommittal when asked if Graham would return to the starting lineup when he was deemed healthy enough to rejoin the lineup.
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