Nets coach Kenny Atkinson broke from his standard operating procedure and announced before facing the Hawks Sunday night at Barclays Center that Kyrie Irving would start at point guard in his first game back after a 26-game absence for treatment of a right shoulder impingement.
The mystery was whether Atkinson would leave Spencer Dinwiddie in the starting lineup after he played All-Star caliber basketball and led the Nets to a 13-13 record in the absence of Irving and also Caris LeVert for much of that time.
Atkinson went with Dinwiddie and brought LeVert off the bench, but both Dinwiddie and LeVert got extended time on the court with Irving, who scored 21 points in 20 minutes on 10-for-11 shooting as the Nets rolled to a 108-86 victory.
Describing the decision to play Irving after five-on-five practices Thursday and Saturday, Atkinson said, “He’s ready. Good news for us. The build-up was good, but then getting the team practice, really good seeing him in that environment. It was an infusion of energy and lifted our spirits a little.”
Better yet, Atkinson liked what he saw from Irving in game action for the first time in two months. It was as if he never had been away.
“He was really efficient,” Atkinson said. “I liked that he didn’t force anything and just played like a pro. He was just in a perfect flow, had a nice demeanor and rhythm about him . . . He was in the right tempo, right place, and defensively, he competed his tail off. The first group [allowed] 16 points in the first quarter, really made a mark defensively.”
During the previous 26 games he started, Dinwiddie averaged 24.8 points and 7.2 assists, and his .324 usage rate was sixth-highest in the NBA. But Dinwiddie came off the bench to start the season when LeVert started with Irving. That lineup went 4-7 and played poorly on defense. With Dinwiddie starting, the Nets improved dramatically on defense, and Atkinson said he’s “not fearful” of assigning him to guard an opponent’s best perimeter player.
Although Dinwiddie scored only seven points, he focused on playmaking. He had eight assists and allowed Irving to play off the ball more often. Asked for his impression of that starting pair, Atkinson said, “Great. Forget the stats, just their synergy. You always worry about that, like, ‘Man, these two guys haven’t started [together] before.’ I thought they both kind of played their roles perfectly.
“They found a way to share the ball, and I thought Spencer was a real big part of our impressive defensive performance. We talked about him being that two-way player, and that’s going to be his role, guarding the best guys. I really liked how that looked tonight with Kyrie and Spence together.”