DENVER — Nets coach Kenny Atkinson doesn’t believe in riding his big horses into the ground. In his first three seasons, the only players who averaged as much as 30 minutes per game were D’Angelo Russell and Joe Harris, who both logged 30.2 minutes per game last season.
But 10 games into the new season, four Nets starters are averaging more than 30 minutes per game, topped by Kyrie Irving’s 33.8 mark. Coming down the stretch of Tuesday’s 119-114 loss at Utah, it appeared Irving was out of gas. Although he scored 27 points in 36 minutes and 41 seconds playing at Salt Lake City’s 4,226-foot altitude, Irving struggled with 2-for-11 shooting in the final period when he was held to five points as the Jazz overcame an eight-point deficit.
With starting two-guard Caris LeVert idled by a sprained right thumb, Atkinson chose to lean heavily on Irving, but he might not have that option when the Nets (4-6) face the Nuggets (7-3) Thursday night in the Mile High City because Irving has been listed as questionable with a right shoulder impingement.
“We are relying on him a lot,” Atkinson said. “I know he loves that responsibility . . . That’s part of the job description. He embraces it, he doesn’t shy away from it, he wants it.
“I think everyone, when they’re in Utah, is a little tired with the elevation. He had really good looks. Sometimes, they go in, sometimes they don’t.”
Indeed, that is exactly how Irving explained his faltering finish as a matter of missing what he felt were open looks, especially his 1-for-5 three-point effort. In his view, big minutes are part of the terrain he inhabits.
But without LeVert, the Nets have only two point guards, including backup Spencer Dinwiddie, who are elite ballhandlers. “I’m used to that,” Irving said. “That’s just the expectation I put on myself as well as the respect I’ve garnered in this league. There’s no excuses.
“Obviously, you would like to have two ballhandlers or three, the luxury of having that out there on the court. The reality is that we’ve just got to be ready for the next man to come in and make some plays out there.”
Under the circumstances, it seemed strange that Atkinson left Dinwiddie on the bench after replacing him with Irving with 9:47 left in a game tied at 94. Dinwiddie scored 10 third-quarter points to help the Nets take an eight-point lead to the final period, and he added another basket early in the fourth.
“I liked Garret Temple on Donovan Mitchell,” Atkinson said. “I wanted to keep that matchup. I thought we were slugging it out with them. Just a feel.”
Both Irving and Dinwiddie said they respected the coach’s decision. Still, it’s notable that Irving, LeVert, Harris and Taurean Prince all are averaging more than 30 minutes per game, while Dinwiddie’s minutes have dropped from 28.8 minutes last season to 25.2 now, even though he is the second-leading scorer.
Atkinson knows he must scale back Irving’s playing time at some point. Although he averaged at least 34 minutes per game four times in his eight seasons, he has managed to play at least 70 games only three times.
“We needed his ballhandling out there,” Atkinson said of Irving. “I’ve never loved playing guys 40 minutes. But there’s a situation right now where he has to play those minutes. It’s definitely something I’m going to consider and understand that we can’t play the guy 40 minutes. It’s just not smart.”