It was only the second game of the season, but by the looks of it, a go-to guy for the Nets was born Friday night at Barclays Center. One game after Caris LeVert lost the handle on a potential game-winning play in Detroit, coach Kenny Atkinson put the ball back in his hands with 15.9 seconds left, and LeVert delivered the game-winning layup for a 107-105 victory over the Knicks in the Nets’ home opener.
In Atkinson’s eyes, it wasn’t about giving LeVert a shot at redemption, it was about figuring out the best option to win a game. He called a clear-out from the top of the key for LeVert, who dribbled down the clock and then drove the right side of the lane to go up over former Michigan teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. to score with one second remaining. Hardaway missed a desperation three-point shot at the buzzer as the Nets pulled out an emotional win over a team that swept them last season.
“We didn’t want to run a play and risk a turnover,” said Atkinson, who was mindful of the fact that the Nets committed 22 turnovers to only three by the Knicks. “We wanted to make sure we got the last shot.
“We want to put it in [LeVert’s] hands. Great game. What does he do? He can really drive the ball. In Detroit, we tried to do the same thing — get him isolated and drive to the basket.”
After committing a turnover in that situation against the Pistons, LeVert said he would try to slow down if he had it to do over. He thought of that before running the Nets’ final play.
“For sure, I wanted to get the shot I wanted to get,” LeVert said. “I didn’t want to rush it. I felt like I got a good shot, and I was confident about it.”
In the fourth quarter, the game virtually boiled down to a mano-a-mano contest between LeVert and Hardaway. LeVert scored 15 of his career-high 28 points and shot 3-for-3 from the field, including two three-pointers, and got to the line to make 7 of 8 foul shots. Hardaway scored nine of his 29 points in the final period but shot 3-for-8, with LeVert often defending him.
Asked if it felt like a Michigan scrimmage, LeVert laughed and said, “A little bit, a little bit. [Hardaway] hit some tough shots down the stretch, but we definitely wanted to get our first win for sure.”
During the offseason, Spencer Dinwiddie said the Nets were the best team in New York. Asked before the game about that comment, Dinwiddie told Newsday, “Like I’ve said before, it’s all about the next step. How are we going to be the best team in the league if we can’t be the best team in our city? Tonight, it’s all about getting our first win and creating stepping stones.”
Dinwiddie did his part with 10 points and six assists, and D’Angelo Russell, who was benched for the fourth quarter in Detroit, scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter and added five rebounds and six assists. Down the stretch, Atkinson went with all three together.
Russell loved it, saying, “Playmakers. You need playmakers on the floor. Coach put us out there and trusted us to make plays.”
Russell acknowledged the Nets’ recent poor record against the Knicks but added, “This year is a new year. We consider them a team we should beat.”