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Nets realize they have to start playing better defense

Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson gestures during the

Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson gestures during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Barclays Center on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

SALT LAKE CITY— Coming off a humbling 26-point loss in Phoenix, the Nets understood the urgency of making an about-face on defense if they expected to have any chance against a Jazz team led by the dynamic guard pairing of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley Tuesday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Coach Kenny Atkinson called for a practice Monday in Phoenix on a previously scheduled recovery day to go over the club’s defensive principles and to stress the need for the starting unit to get off to better starts defensively and play with greater effort. Atkinson had not planned to make any lineup changes, but a sprained right thumb suffered by Caris LeVert ruled him out against the Jazz. His replacement figured to be Spencer Dinwiddie or Garrett Temple.

Temple was a positive influence against the Suns, scoring nine points off the bench and finishing with a respectable plus-two rating when he was on the floor. After the Suns’ loss, he spoke of the need to improve on defense heading to tough road games against the Jazz and then the Nuggets on Thursday in Denver.

Noting how the Nets cut a 20-point first-quarter deficit against the Suns to two only to see it balloon to 18 again by halftime, Temple said, “To get down by 18 going to the second half, that’s tough to do, especially on the road. It’s a tough place to play, and the next two games we play on the road are very tough places. We’ve got to make sure we stay within arm’s reach and don’t have to crawl back.”

Temple is one of several veterans who were signed as free agents during the summer, and the adjustment to a new defensive system has not gone as smoothly as hoped. “I actually talked early on in preseason about how long it usually takes to click,” Temple said. “But it’s not a 20-point and 30-point difference. We have enough talent and veterans who understand you can find ways to stay in the game even though that communication and that chemistry hasn’t been built completely yet. We can’t use that as an excuse.”

The Nets came into the game ranked third in the NBA in scoring at 119.8 points per game, but they were 29th in defense, allowing 121.7 points. Obviously, they habitually trade baskets with opponents, and they couldn’t afford to take that mentality against the Jazz, who went in as the No. 1 defense in the NBA, allowing 98.1 points per game.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Temple said when asked if the Nets are content to trade baskets. “That’s been something we’ve done this season, and we’ve got to figure out a way to not allow our offense to dictate our defense. We’ve got to find ways to get stops first and understand that, offensively, we can get what we want because of our talent. But we’re going to win games on the defensive end.”

DeAndre Jordan, another veteran who still is adjusting to his role with the Nets, returned to the lineup in Phoenix after a one-game absence to nurse a sprained ankle, and he performed well with 16 points on 8 of 9 shooting and 12 rebounds.

“We have to have great starts,” Jordan said. “When the bench guys come in the game, we have to pick up where the starters left off. We all need each other to make this thing work.”

Temple said that the Nets’ slow 4-5 start and struggles have been disappointing. “You don’t want to learn lessons by losing games, especially like this,” Temple said of the Suns blowout. “If it didn’t get under your skin, you wouldn’t be a competitor. But we understand that it’s a long season, and we have time to fix it.”

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