By Tom Dowd
Even before Jeremy Lin was lost for the season with a knee injury on opening night, the begining of the season was going to involve some sorting out for coach Kenny Atkinson and the Brooklyn Nets.
There were six new players, several of them expected to play significant roles, joining a team that returned eight players who averaged at least 20 minutes a game last season. Two players — Allen Crabbe and Caris LeVert — missed the first two preseason games after suffering ankle sprains during training camp.
Lin’s injury has changed the specifics and probably altered the trajectory for several players. But the overall process of seeking out the right combinations of players was always going to carry over into the regular season.
The Nets played 10 players on opening night. Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris saw their first action in the home opener on Friday, with Atkinson using 11 players in the wins against the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. Sean Kilpatrick, Tyler Zeller and Isaiah Whitehead have yet to play.
With Allen Crabbe into the starting lineup on Friday, and then Caris LeVert on Sunday, the Nets have used three starting lineups in three games. And with Allen, the 6-foot-11 rookie, having impressive moments in limited minutes and Crabbe working on a minutes limit that won’t last, the process is ongoing.
“If you look at it analytically, you’re looking at 15, 20 games if you really want a decent sample size,” said Atkinson. “I don’t even think 10 is enough. It’s a process. We look at it analytically, but there’s also a feel to it and a feel for the players and where they’re most comfortable and with what units. Especially with (six) new players, there are big decisions to make how that works out. I think you see it on every team. You see guys, look at the beginning of the year and the end of the year it’s different usually. And that extends througout the roster. Jarrett Allen starts coming in and playing well, there’s ramifications to that with other guys’ minutes.”
BOOKER’S BIG START
After posting double-doubles in each of Brooklyn’s first two games, Trevor Booker had 14 points and six rebounds in Sunday’s win against Atlanta. Over three games the 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 17.0 points and 9.0 rebounds.
That production is coming in just 26.0 minutes per game coming off the bench, giving Booker some impressive per-36 rates of 23.5 points and 12.5 rebounds. The per-36 points represent a huge jump from Booker’s previous high of 14.6 last season. But in each of the last two seasons, the eighth-year forward has averaged a double-double per 36.
“He’s played two excellent games,” said Atkinson before Sunday afternoon’s game against Atlanta. “I think he’s, how should I say this, condensing his package. Just staying within what we want to do a little more. A little less risk taking. He’s been real solid defensively. We’ll tend toward forays, gambling, so just trying to reduce his package, keep it really simple. One of our concerns, giving him freedom bringing the ball up sometimes, making simpler decisions. Easy passes. That’s kind of our mantra. I think he’s embraced that, and you know he’s going to give you the energy and the toughness and the rebounding. He’s been really good.”
WORKING ON DEFENSE
After surrendering 140 points to Indiana on opening night and 50-percent shooting to Orlando, the Nets turned in a stronger defensive effort in their 116-104 win against the Hawks. Brooklyn held Atlanta to 34-percent shooting, including 26 percent from 3-point range.
“There was no tactical adjustments,” said Atkinson. “I think it’s just our habits improving. Our attention to detail improving. We still have a long way to go. We put them on the free throw line, they’re in the bonus and we’re fouling them at the end of the quarter, just giving away free points. That’s something we have to be more disciplined.”
ABOUT THE MAGIC
Last season two of Brooklyn’s three meetings with Orlando came within a six-day span in April. This time, the Nets are playing the Magic twice within the season’s first week, with two more games coming in January and March.
So it’s a quick turnaround from Friday’s 126-121 Nets win in their home opener. Brooklyn got a big charge off the bench led by Spencer Dinwiddie and Trevor Booker, and some big shots late from D’Angelo Russell.
That allowed them to overcome a monster game from Orlando center Nikola Vucevic. The 7-footer knocked down four straight 3-pointers when the Nets gave him the perimeter shot early and went on to finish with 41 points, shooting 17-of-22 from the field and 6-of-8 from 3-point range.
After starter Timofey Mozgov, the Nets tried everything from 6-11 rookie Jarrett Allen to 6-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
“Vucevic I think was a 30 percent career 3-point shooter,” said coach Kenny Atkinson before the Nets played Atlanta on Sunday, while discussing the Nets defense in general and the difficulty teams face in guarding big men with shooting range. “He was 0 for 3 first game. We do look at it analytically. You can argue when he hits four you better start making an adjustment. We did. We did finally make an adjustment and put Rondae on him. Here’s the dilemma. You put Rondae on Vucevic and he’s going to go and pound you inside. You’re picking your poison. And we decided, OK, we’re not going to give him the 3. We’re going to see if he can beat us on the post. We had a switch at the end of the game and had DeMarre (Carroll) on him. He had a pretty good look in the post. Luckily he missed. So we’re trading 3s for 2s there. It’s a new trend in the NBA. It’s gaining more steam … We’re working on it as a staff to get better. But we need to help the players a little more.”
The Magic followed up with a 114-93 win at Cleveland on Saturday, an impressive win on the second half of a road back-to-back. The Magic jumped out to an 18-point first-quarter lead and Vucevic finished with 23 points. Orlando made 17 of 35 3-pointers against the Cavs, and the Magic are shooting 48 percent from 3-point range as a team through three games.