Opening the fourth quarter against Washington Wednesday night, Nets rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead tripped and fell while trying to prevent a three-pointer by Trey Burke, and then Whitehead committed a turnover that led to another Burke basket for a 12-point Wizards’ lead.
But the Coney Island toughness that defines Whitehead showed up as he hit an open three-pointer and combined with Trevor Booker to lead a 17-5 run to tie a game that would become an overtime loss. It was a hard-nosed response by Whitehead and Booker, both of whom recently lost starting jobs, that showed how hard the Nets are competing despite the 9-44 record they take into their game Friday night at Barclays Center against Miami (23-30), which has won 12 straight.
“Isaiah was struggling quite honestly,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Then he hit that open three, and now, he becomes a confident point guard. He was making great passes, hitting Booker on the roll, defending John Wall. He was resilient, did a great job coming back from a tough stretch. And Booker has been good off the bench. I think he feels comfortable and he’s playing well.”
Atkinson’s recent lineup changes have led to marked improvement, if not wins. The coach said he sees a “direct correlation” between the Nets’ improved defense and the decision to start Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at power forward over Booker. At the same time, Booker has brought tremendous energy from the bench. He and Hollis-Jefferson each recorded double-doubles against the Wizards.
Whitehead said Booker “was an animal” against the Wizards, and added, “Coach does a great job of finding what works. What he has now with us, the bench and the starters have the same type of aggressiveness. Both teams are playing defense, and that really makes a big difference.”
At Atkinson’s urging, the Nets have improved their physical play on defense and offense. Using Hollis-Jefferson against opposing starting units allows the Nets to switch more in coverage, yet Booker is like another starter coming in.
“It’s going good,” Hollis-Jefferson said of the lineup changes. “Trevor coming in and keeping that fire going and me starting off with it has been a big help. I give a lot of credit to him. He stayed himself. He didn’t let it faze him. That has been big for us.”
The Nets have held their past six opponents to an average of 105.5 points, and their losing margin in those games has been 6.3 points, but wins remain elusive.
“It’s definitely tough to be in that predicament,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “But I want to thank the guys on our team that come in with a new attitude every day, just trying to stay positive and holding ourselves accountable. We’re not letting the record define us. We know we’re better than that, and we’re going to keep playing like that.”