Call it the changing of the centers for the Nets. They lost for the fourth time in as many tries, three by double digits, to the Knicks, 111-95, Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. But in the bigger picture, the most important thing was the play of rookie center Jarrett Allen, who made his first start, and Jahlil Okafor, who got extended minutes.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson left Tyler Zeller, who had started 33 straight games, on the bench and went with the young guys. Allen scored 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting, and Okafor had 13 rebounds, one blocked shot and played physical defense even though he scored only five points in 24:48.
Asked about starting Allen, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said, “He’s been playing well, and this is the next step for him. I didn’t think it would happen before the All-Star break, but he’s been clamoring for more minutes. Jahlil, too.”
Allen was matched up early against Knicks All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, who took the rookie out to the three-point line and dropped a couple of long-range baskets on him to begin a 28-point night. Atkinson called it a “baptism by fire.”
“It was a good experience for me, honestly,” Allen said. “Normally, my mentality is block every shot at the rim. But Porzingis is a versatile player. I have to be ready to go out to the three-point line.”
Allen wasn’t even aware until after the game that he was perfect from the field. But he is pleased with the progress he has made so far and hopes to set the bar higher.
“I think I’m making good progress,” Allen said. “A lot of people I heard before the season started said that I was going to be in the G League. But I was able to prove them wrong and be in the position I’m in now. Honestly, I think I can improve a lot more before the season’s over.”
Okafor is in a similar position, gaining more minutes in which to produce the past two games. Atkinson was asked if he needs to see more of Okafor before he reaches free agency this summer and said Okafor has earned it.
“It’s very encouraging,” Okafor said. “I’m just doing the right thing every day, doing what they ask of me, and I’m being rewarded for it. That’s the reason you put the work in. It’s a good feeling. Hopefully, I can stay on the same trajectory.”
For the first time since he was traded by the 76ers on Dec. 7, Okafor will face his former team Wednesday night at Barclays Center, but he insisted there’s no special motivation.
“I’m excited,” Okafor said. “I miss those guys in the locker room. They were all my brothers. We were together for a few years. I’m excited to see them all, but other than that, no.”