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Caris LeVert coming up big as Nets’ backup point guard

The second-year player faced a major challenge in Mexico City: containing OKC’s Russell Westbrook.

Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert (22) drives against

Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert (22) drives against Atlanta Hawks forward Taurean Prince (12) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) Photo Credit: AP / John Bazemore

MEXICO CITY — Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook was the biggest name on the floor and the most dangerous offensive weapon Thursday night at Arena Ciudad de México. But the Nets came into the game hoping the altitude would get to him — not only Mexico City’s 7,382-foot altitude but also the height of 6-6 Spencer Dinwiddie and 6-7 backup point guard Caris LeVert playing defense against him.

In the absence of injured Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell, Dinwiddie and LeVert have emerged as an effective tag team at point guard, especially as LeVert has grown into the backup role after playing shooting guard and small forward. LeVert had his best game at point guard in the Nets’ previous game, a win at Atlanta in which he scored 17 points and contained Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder in the second half.

“With Jeremy and D’Angelo out, he is our de facto second-unit point guard,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of LeVert. “We’ve seen his game grow since he’s taken that role. I think he’s gotten in a comfort zone.

“Sometimes when guys are out, you discover things you didn’t know. We talked about Caris when we drafted him. Can this kid eventually be a point guard? That wasn’t the main reason we drafted him, but we thought in the back of our minds it was something he could do. It’s nice to see he’s starting to feel comfortable there because we need it.”

LeVert said bouncing back from a home loss to the Hawks to beat them in the road rematch was important in building momentum for the two-game trip to Mexico City, which includes a game against Miami on Saturday night. He was looking forward to facing Westbrook, who is averaging nearly a triple-double — 22.5 points, 9.9 assists and 9.3 rebounds a game.

“He’s obviously a really good player, but just try to limit his touches, make all of his shots contested and make him play defense on the other end,” LeVert said. “That’s what we do with every really good player.”

Like all of the Nets, LeVert was impressed by the size of Ciudad de Mexico Arena and was anticipating the chance to perform in front of a sellout crowd of 23,200. “It’s cool,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting a gym like this. It’s really nice. Obviously, the fans are crazy here. I can’t wait to play in front of these fans for sure.”

As for the effect of the altitude, Dinwiddie spent his college career at Colorado, playing at mile-high altitude. “I have a taste of it, a little bit of experience with it,” he said. “It’s a level playing field for everybody; they have to adjust to it just like we do.”

LeVert’s improvement on the offensive end figured to be important against the Thunder. He showed in Atlanta that he can run the pick-and-roll. During a key 12-0 run, LeVert fed rookie center Jarrett Allen for three of his four dunks in that span to help put the game away.

“I feel like that’s one of the reasons why they drafted me last year is because of the versatility that I bring to the table,” Le Vert said. “I feel like I’m going to keep growing in this position and other positions.”

Dinwiddie already is gaining recognition in his own right as one of the most improved players in the NBA, and he praised LeVert’s response to the demands of an unfamiliar position. “I think he’s definitely settling in,” Dinwiddie said. “He’s in a role that’s more akin to what he had at Michigan, so him having the ball in his hands a little bit more has enabled him to get a certain level of flow. Obviously, that helps his shooting percentage. Somebody as talented as him starting to put it all together, it’s fun to watch.”

New York Sports