PHILADELPHIA — After losing 18 of the previous 21 games, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson decided the time was ripe for a shakeup. He benched Spencer Dinwiddie after 55 straight starts at point guard and inserted Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at power forward for more size and defense.
It worked well enough for the Nets to build a 13-point second-quarter lead, and their defense improved marginally to keep it close down the stretch, but a go-ahead three-pointer by Robert Covington with 35.9 seconds left started a 7-1 finishing run for the 76ers in their 120-116 victory Friday night at Wells Fargo Center.
The Nets took their last lead at 115-113 on a layup by Caris LeVert with 1:16 left. But Covington buried a right-wing three- pointer to put the 76ers ahead 116-115 and Dinwiddie’s attempt at a go-ahead layup was blocked by Joel Embiid with 20.8 seconds to go. T.J. McConnell then hit a pair of foul shots before Dinwiddie missed a potential tying three at the other end.
“We didn’t make the play to close it out,” Atkinson said. “Credit to their defense. They switched everything, and we didn’t make the play. On the flip side, we struggled to get a stop. [Covington] made the big three. Our defense was good in stretches, but it let us down a little bit toward the end.”
Jarrett Allen had a chance to give the Nets a four-point lead but missed a reverse layup with 46.4 seconds to go while trying to avoid Embiid.
“It was tough, but for me, I have to go up with more authority and try to dunk that one,” Allen said. “I think I went up too soft.”
After Covington’s three, the Nets called timeout to set up a play, but Dinwiddie said it broke down on the inbounds pass and turned into a scramble.
“I tried to drive it hard,” Dinwiddie said. “I tried to, I guess, make lemonade out of lemons.”
Embiid’s presence under the hoop was too much to overcome. “[Embiid] was helping in the lane, and Rondae was behind the goal,” Atkinson said. “Spencer drove it to that area, and there wasn’t enough space there and Embiid makes a good play.”
The Nets (21-48) got double-double performances from Hollis-Jefferson (21 points, 10 rebounds) and DeMarre Carroll (18 points, 11 rebounds). Dinwiddie added 14 points, but D’Angelo Russell was scoreless after an eight-point opening quarter.
Embiid was a force with 24 points and 19 rebounds for the 76ers (38-30), who got 23 points from JJ Redick and 21 points and 12 assists from Ben Simmons.
Atkinson made it clear that Joe Harris started at two-guard only because Allen Crabbe was out with an illness. Benching Dinwiddie created room for Hollis-Jefferson in the frontcourt next to Allen and let Carroll slide to his natural small forward position from the four.
Atkinson again said there was no chemistry problem between Dinwiddie and Russell.
“The numbers are decent,” Atkinson said. “I think Spencer is in a little bit of a rut. I do think that offensively. Defensively, he’s been very good . . . It’s definitely not a knock on Spencer at all. He’s had a great year. Just a little shakeup.”
In his previous 10 games, including nine since Russell regained his starting job, Dinwiddie’s shooting was far off. His overall percentage dropped to 32.2 in that span, and his three-point percentage was 15.8.
Dinwiddie reacted with equanimity to the “benching.” Reminded that he was the one running the Nets the previous 55 games, he smiled and said, “Not anymore.”
But in the fourth quarter, Dinwiddie played 11:16 to 2:27 for Russell, suggesting the change wasn’t as profound as it might have appeared.