NEW ORLEANS — For as long as Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert remain on the Nets’ injury list, every game figures to be an adventure. While Spencer Dinwiddie and Garrett Temple have stepped up magnificently in starting roles, the second unit has been weakened and coach Kenny Atkinson has been left searching for answers with roller coaster results.
Sunday’s uplifting home win over the 76ers, who eliminated the Nets in the first round of the playoffs last spring, put the Nets on a high to start a two-game road trip against the Pelicans Tuesday night at Smoothie King Arena before heading to San Antonio to face the Spurs on Thursday. The Nets’ bench outscored the 76ers by 40-23, which is more akin to the production Atkinson is used to getting from his reserves.
The return of Wilson Chandler from a 25-game suspension for using a banned substance was one factor, but Atkinson lately has adjusted his rotation to give more playing time to David Nwaba and two-way player Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot ahead of second-year players Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs.
Nwaba has played so well that he essentially stepped in seamlessly to replace Iman Shumpert, who had to be waived to make roster room for Chandler, and “TLC,” as Luwawu-Cabarrot is known, totaled 15 points and six rebounds in 40 minutes over the past two games.
Asked recently if it feels like the Nets simply are working to hold the fort until Irving and LeVert return, Atkinson said, “I think we’re just waiting for guys to get healthy. We’re (10-5) over that stretch with guys out. I think that’s more than holding the fort. I’m going to continue to trust these guys, trust our bench, trust our young guys to keep improving. I think they’ve done a fine job. I don’t expect any changes.”
Musa had been the first man off the bench, but he was struggling at the offensive end along with backup point guard Theo Pinson. So, Atkinson decided it was time to experiment during a loss Saturday in Toronto.
“Just a feel,” Atkinson said. “I wanted to take a look at TLC and see where he was. I thought David was really good in that sixth-man role. We had to change things up a little bit with Shump not being with us anymore. We’ll continue to search and look to find the right solutions.”
In the win over the 76ers, Nwaba was plus-17 in his time on the floor, and Luwawu-Cabarrot was plus-14. TLC is on a two-way contract and has averaged 19.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists with the Long Island Nets in the G League. But he’s in his fourth NBA season after playing two years with the 76ers and splitting last season with the Thunder and the Bulls and knows what he’s doing.
“I like his athleticism and his length on defense,” Atkinson said. “He just gives us another long wing. He’s fit in nicely, understands the offense. He’s not passive, either. He’ll take it to the rim. He’s been a pleasant surprise these last two games.”
Although Kurucs got a significant run at Toronto, he was limited to just four minutes against the 76ers after the return of Chandler, who now is the backup power forward. But Atkinson insists Kurucs, who started 46 games last season when the Nets went 28-18, still is in the mix.
“The good thing about Rodi is he’s in that four-three-two bucket,” Atkinson said of his versatility. “He can play any of those spots. He’ll have opportunity. Wilson coming back probably closes the door a little, but I wouldn’t close it completely. Rodi is too talented, too much a part of our program for us to sit him on the bench for long stretches.”