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Kenny Atkinson explains his defensive reasons for sitting Caris LeVert late in games

Nets guard Caris LeVert dunks against the Pistons

Nets guard Caris LeVert dunks against the Pistons during the first half of an NBA game on Saturday in Detroit. Credit: AP/Duane Burleson

After the Nets acquired top-tier free agents Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in the offseason, there was talk that homegrown talent Caris LeVert might emerge as the organization’s third superstar. But during their loss in Detroit on Saturday, LeVert sat out the final eight minutes in favor of backup Spencer Dinwiddie for what coach Kenny Atkinson said were defensive reasons.

It was the second time this season that Dinwiddie got the call over LeVert at the end of a game, so before the Nets faced the Pelicans on Monday night at Barclays Center, Atkinson was asked what he needs from LeVert on defense. “It was more defensive matchups,” he said. “It’s not just Spencer and him, but Spencer is an elite pick-and-roll defender, and sometimes we feel like if we’re getting hurt there, we’ll throw Spencer at that matchup.

“Caris will end up finishing the majority of games. But as it always has been here, it’s who’s playing well at that time, and then there’s the matchups. Those two things matter when we’re putting our end-of-game lineup out there.”

Sure enough, Atkinson went with LeVert paired with Kyrie Irving in the Nets’ 135-125 victory, and he delivered with 23 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter.

Asked what it meant to regain that role, LeVert said, “As a competitor, you want to play in fourth quarters, but he’s the coach. He makes those decisions, and I trust him to make those decisions.”

After the Pelicans pulled within two points, LeVert hit a three-pointer with 3:07 to play to spark the Nets’ closing run, and he teamed well with Irving at the end. “I think he did a great job of controlling the offense, getting us all in our spots before he attacked,” LeVert said of Irving’s finishing kick. “Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of attention on him. He really spread the court out today, and we got a lot of open shots at the end.”

A rebuilt Okafor returns

Two seasons ago, the Nets took a flier on trading for center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but he played in only 26 games and left in free agency. Okafor returned to Barclays Center as the Pelicans' starting center, averaging 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds. The Nets held him to four points and four rebounds in 21 minutes.

“I think he’s made a tremendous jump,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “He’s made unbelievable strides in his whole physical appearance and what he’s done to reinvent his body. He’s changed his diet … and he saw a sleep doctor this summer. That played a huge role in the right kind of sleep that he’s getting, and I think that’s been huge for him as far as physically being able to sustain some of the things he’s doing.”

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