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Kenny Atkinson praises Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, his former boss, for helping him with Nets

"I think from a basketball philosophy standpoint, we're pretty much on the same page, but it was all the little things behind the scenes," the Nets coach said.

Head coach Kenny Atkinson of the Nets reacts

Head coach Kenny Atkinson of the Nets reacts in the first half against the Washington Wizards at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It’s fair to say the apple didn’t fall far from the coaching tree of Bucks boss Mike Budenholzer, who on Monday night at Barclays Center faced off against Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, his former assistant in Atlanta. Budenholzer came into the game with the best record in the NBA while Atkinson’s Nets were seventh in the Eastern Conference and fighting for a playoff berth, but both are in the conversation for NBA coach of the year honors.

When someone mentioned that to Atkinson before the game, he laughed and said, “Well, I hope he has a huge lead over me. If you look at the standings, the job he’s done is tremendous. It’s not even a race. I’m glad to be mentioned in that race. I think that’s pretty cool, coming from Bud’s tree. That’s very cool. Proud of that.”

Atkinson spent three seasons under Budenholzer after previously working as an assistant on Mike D’Antoni’s staff with the Knicks and working for Rick Adelman in the Rockets’ organization. He left the Hawks three seasons ago for his first head-coaching job with the bottom-feeding Nets and gave credit to Budenholzer for preparing him to take that step.

Asked about Budenholzer’s impact, Atkinson said, “Just how to run a program. Just the total culture that I’ve talked about so often. He really opened up my eyes to a different way of doing things.

“I think from a basketball philosophy standpoint, we’re pretty much on the same page, but it was all the little things behind the scenes. Just a tremendous influence on me. I copied a lot of what we did in Atlanta here . . . Most of all, he’s just a great friend and mentor. We’ve had dinners, we text and talk on the phone. When I have an issue, I give him a ring, and he’s been very helpful.”

Budenholzer is in his first season with the Bucks and has them close to clinching home court throughout the playoffs. But he walked into a situation with two All-Stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the MVP favorite, and Khris Middleton, and they have a deep supporting cast.

But having done a complete rebuild with the Hawks, he can understand the problems Atkinson faced when he took over the Nets. He said he’s not at all surprised that Atkinson has them in playoff contention in just his third season.

“I love watching his teams play,” Budenholzer said. “I’m a big believer in Kenny. I learned a ton from him. He’s got a passion for the game, a feel for the game. I think his players feel it. The relationship goes both ways. I enjoy it.”

The Bucks limped into Barclays Center with a long injury list for the second game of a back-to-back set. But after missing the previous game with a sprained right ankle Antetokounmpo was able to start against the Nets. So Budenholzer wasn’t taking it easy on his friend. Point guard Eric Bledsoe also came off the injury list to start, but Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon remained out.

As far as Budenholzer is concerned, there is no contest for the MVP award. “It’s how he impacts the game offensively, defensively, the tone he sets for our entire organization with the consistency, the work ethic, the leadership,” Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo. “I don’t know what an MVP is, but in my mind Giannis has been every bit of that.”

As for the coach of the year race, Budenholzer smiled and said, “I’d love for Kenny to be coach of the year. I think he’s very deserving with what he’s done here in three years, the culture and the way they compete, the way they play both ends of the court. I just think he’s incredibly deserving.”

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