For the Nets to make another leap forward this season, coach Kenny Atkinson must find the right combination of players to successfully close out more of the tight games his team plays. In nine games this season, starting point guard D’Angelo Russell has been left out of that mix three times, including the past two games.
The analytic numbers upon which Atkinson relies heavily show the Nets’ most effective backcourt combination has been backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie with leading scorer Caris LeVert. Joe Harris, who is shooting 58.7 percent from three-point range, is a must-have at small forward. Other perimeter options besides Russell include Allen Crabbe, who is in a shooting slump, and Shabazz Napier, who is shooting 50.0 percent from three-point range and can be a defensive sparkplug.
Explaining his decision to keep Russell on the bench in the fourth quarter of Friday’s loss to Houston, Atkinson said it goes “game-to-game” and said the defense was switching from positions one through five and he was worried about creating “mismatches.” That could be a problem for Russell on Sunday at Barclays Center when the Nets (3-6) face the 76ers (6-4) and 6-10 point guard Ben Simmons, though Russell likely would be matched against 6-4 Markelle Fultz or backup shooting guard J.J. Redick.
Russell was slightly taken aback when reporters told him Atkinson’s explanation for why he sat against the Rockets. Asked if it’s hard to find his rhythm when the coach is going with a lineup based on the hot hand, Russell said, “You can’t use that as an excuse. But if it’s based on the hot hand, I guess so.”
Atkinson deflected a question about Russell’s defense in clutch situations, but the coach’s lineups suggest he prefers other matchups. After Wednesday’s win over the Pistons in which Dinwiddie scored 25 points and hit shots to force overtime and win the game, Atkinson cited the 6-6 Dinwiddie’s ability to switch on defense and contest a potential game-winning shot by 6-10 Blake Griffin at the end.
“I think where he’s underrated is defensively,” Atkinson said of Dinwiddie. “That switch against Blake kind of personified his versatility . . . The contest was unbelievable. He can defend multiple positions. He’s a talented guy. Last season, he finished a bunch of games for us and made some game-winning shots and plays at the end.”
Against the Rockets, the Nets trailed by a point before going scoreless on eight straight possessions, missing seven shots and committing two turnovers while giving up an 8-0 run. Dinwiddie and LeVert blamed the Nets’ defense.
“In those situations, the main thing is we rely on our defense,” Dinwiddie said. “If we cut it to one and we’re able to string together a bunch of stops, then it stays at one and we have a shot to take the lead whenever we do convert.”
LeVert agreed, saying, “Sometimes you get in trouble on offense. You miss shots. You can always control your defense. In those situations, we’ve just got to focus on getting stops.”
Although Russell can be an explosive scorer, he might have to improve defensively to stay on court at the end of games.