Playoff basketball is a game of adjustments, and in Game 4 on Saturday at Barclays Center, it appeared Nets coach Kenny Atkinson had found the answer to making it tough on the 76ers by moving Caris LeVert and Jared Dudley into the starting lineup.
But the decision by 76ers coach Brett Brown to return All-Star center Joel Embiid to his lineup after having him sit out Game 3 with a sore knee proved decisive. Embiid led a comeback from seven points down for a 112-108 victory that gave the 76ers a 3-1 series lead and the chance to close it out in Game 5 Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
After Game 4, Brown said he anticipated Atkinson’s changes but said the effect on his team was “marginal.”
That’s not at all how the Nets saw it. LeVert boosted the Nets’ offensive firepower with 25 points and Dudley played a terrific game at both ends, especially with his defense on 6-10 point guard Ben Simmons. That was until Dudley got himself ejected in a third-quarter melee he ignited by chest-bumping Embiid after the Philadelphia center’s flagrant 1 foul on Nets center Jarrett Allen.
“It looked like it had some effect,” Atkinson said. “I thought it boosted our energy getting Caris more involved in what we’re doing and we go J.D. at the five a little bit. I just felt like it was time to change, and I thought it helped us.”
Video replays of the third-quarter scuffle clearly showed Atkinson screaming “we need you!” as he pulled Dudley away from the scrum. Simmons had only six points and had committed three turnovers at the point that Dudley was ejected.
Asked about Dudley’s impact, Atkinson said, “Oh, man, he was great. It reminded me of Game 1. He has an understanding, an IQ that really helps our team. He has a physicality. He knows playoff basketball. He was a huge reason I thought we played well tonight.”
The Nets had a chance to even the series and squandered it with poor execution down the stretch, but there’s every reason to expect Atkinson to stick with the new lineup for Game 5.
Allen gushed about the play of LeVert, whose work with him in the pick-and-roll helped Allen produce a 21-point game to go with his eight rebounds and four assists. “Man, I love it,” Allen said. “When I first got here, me and Caris on a pick-and-roll, throwing the lobs, either I score or he scores. It’s great to see him out there performing at his highest again.”
Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell, who had 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists, also liked the change because it relieved some of the defensive pressure on himself. “I thought it was a great move for Coach,” Russell said. “He’s been making changes throughout the whole season that have given us an advantage to compete and give ourselves a chance.
“As far as going back to Philly, this game reminded us of Game 1. We’re trying to figure out the right recipe to attack on the offensive end, and it gave us a good look on the defensive end as well.”
Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 18 points off the bench and was on the floor with LeVert and Russell the entire fourth quarter, thought the changes helped but was realistic about the task the Nets face now.
“I think the starting unit definitely played a little bit better than we had in the previous several games,” he said. “Obviously, if we had tied the series 2-2, it would have been pretty big-time for us. We’ve dug ourselves a little bit of a hole now . . . We need to pull off something incredible.”