LeVert pays dividends in starter’s role
Matches career-high in scoring as Nets upend Suns
With leading scorer Kyrie Irving out again due to injury, the struggling Brooklyn Nets needed someone to step up Monday night against the Phoenix Suns at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
Caris LeVert did just that, pouring in a career high-tying 29 points to go with seven assists in his first start in almost three months as Brooklyn blew past the Suns, 119-97, in front of 14,891 fans on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.
LeVert, who missed 24 games earlier this season with a thumb injury suffered during his last start on Nov. 10, was paired in the starting backcourt with Spencer Dinwiddie after Irving went down with a knee sprain during Saturday night’s 113-107 loss in Washington.
The 25-year-old slasher was the driving force behind the Nets’ fourth victory in six games following a five-game losing streak.
He made 10-of-20 shots from the floor, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, knocked down all seven of his free throws, grabbed three rebounds and picked up a pair of steals in 32 scintillating minutes.
LeVert also played locked-down defense on Suns standout guard Devon Booker, who was limited to 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting.
“It’s definitely good to see the ball going through the basket, be aggressive like I was tonight,” noted LeVert, who had managed just nine points on 3-of-14 shooting over his previous two contests.
The former first-round pick scored 11 points in the third quarter, when the Nets used a 19-2 run to bury the Suns for good en route to their first win against a Western Conference opponent in eight tries since topping New Orleans on Dec. 17.
“We drafted him and we’ve seen him play at an All-Star level for stretches, so I know, we know, it’s there when he’s feeling healthy,” said Nets Head Coach Kenny Atkinson, whose tenure in Brooklyn began the same season the Nets traded for LeVert following the 2016 NBA Draft.
“It’s really just my history with him. He’s our first born, right?”
Joe Harris scored 16 points, Taurean Prince added 15 and Dinwiddie finished with 14 for the Nets (22-27), who will host Golden State in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
Brooklyn will then visit Toronto on Saturday and Indiana next Monday before hosting the defending NBA champion Raptors in Brooklyn next Wednesday in their final game before the annual All-Star break.
“We just talked about playing with a sense of urgency,” Harris said of the Nets’ mindset entering Monday night’s game.
“All these games here before the break are extremely valuable for us going forward. We talked about doing it on the defensive end. First quarter wasn’t our best effort defensively, but I thought after that it was probably one of the better defensive efforts that we’ve had all season.”
Atkinson agreed, citing the Nets’ effectiveness with the ball and without it.
“It was one of our better wins of the year just on both sides of the ball. I thought we were good defensively and really shared it offensively,” Atkinson said.
Irving, who had already missed 27 games earlier this season with a right-shoulder impingement, crumpled to the court in pain Saturday night after fighting for a loose ball with Washington’s Bradley Beal.
The Nets, who watched Irving pour in 54 points against Chicago at Barclays less than 24 hours earlier, were relieved to find out that their top threat had suffered a medial ligament sprain in his left knee, rather than a tear.
But the superstar guard is still unlikely to rejoin the team prior to next week’s break, making the contributions of others, like LeVert, even more important as Brooklyn continues to fight for an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
“Great timing. We needed it, especially with Ky going out,” Atkinson said of LeVert’s season-best effort.
“We needed it. He did it on both ends. The Devin Booker defense was excellent and of course, offensively really, really carried us. So great timing there.”
Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot also gave the Nets an extra boost off the bench in Monday’s win, scoring 13 points along with three rebounds and a blocked shot in 25 minutes.
“Whenever someone’s going down, we’ve all got each other’s back. Just keep each other accountable. Just next man up,” he said. “Come out and play hard, like I said. When someone’s down, you’ve got to step up.”
Nothing But Net: Harris, the reigning 3-Point Shootout champion from last year’s NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, will return to defend his crown in Chicago in a couple of weeks. “Joe’s a competitor, man. Joe would go down to the Y if you told him there was a pickup game or a 3-point shooting contest,” Atkinson said. “I don’t think any of us would dare hold him back and it was such a joy, such a big positive for our organization, too. Really hope he wins it again. I know he’s more than capable.”
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