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Caris LeVert makes defensive presence felt

The confident backup point guard provides the spark coach Kenny Atkinson is seeking.

Nets guard Caris LeVert and Spurs guard Manu

Nets guard Caris LeVert and Spurs guard Manu Ginobili scramble for a loose ball during a game, Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017, in San Antonio. Photo Credit: AP / Eric Gay

BOSTON — When the Nets finally snapped out of a 1-7 funk with a dominant 111-87 victory Friday night in Miami in which they led by 38 points, it was the bench and, more specifically, backup point guard Caris Le Vert who led the way.

The Nets’ bench outscored the Heat’s reserves 55-27, and LeVert had a career-high 11 assists to go with 12 points and a game-high plus-28 rating when he was on the floor.

LeVert played with a painful hip pointer but simply would not be denied, impacting the game at both ends of the court and providing the defensive spark coach Kenny Atkinson was seeking.

“I loved his defense,” Atkinson said. “He was picking up full court and getting into the ball defensively. He caused a lot of havoc on both ends of the court, and he was questionable to play. There was no way he was sitting out. He’s the type of guy we want in the program.”

In addition to LeVert, backup shooting guard Joe Harris led the Nets with 21 points and rookie center Jarrett Allen tied his career highs with 12 points and nine rebounds. Though backup forward Quincy Acy had a modest six points and seven rebounds, he was plus-20 in his 21 minutes.

If the Nets are going to start playing more consistently well, starting New Year’s Eve against the Celtics, the NBA’s second-highest-scoring bench will be a major part of the formula for success.

In the past month, it’s clear that LeVert has grown into a leadership role. “Caris has done an unbelievable job with the second unit,” Harris said. “He just kind of sets the tone. He was able to make plays for himself and for everybody else. He really opens the lane for myself, guys that can shoot the ball. He does a great job dumping it off to our bigs.”

Atkinson agreed. “He’s kind of making it his group,” he said. “I don’t want to make it about him because I think the other guys are playing well. But you do need someone to lead a unit, and they’ve got nice chemistry going.”

Since moving from starting small forward in the final 25 games last season to backup point guard, LeVert acknowledged that he has grown more comfortable handling the ball as opposed to playing off it, but he downplayed his role in establishing the bench’s identity to look at the bigger picture.

“I feel like it’s not just the second unit but the team in general,” LeVert said. “We want to be a team that we’re competitive, a team that’s always out there fighting, a team that you can never say you outcompeted. That’s not just the second unit; that’s everybody. Today, it was just that way where we kind of came in and turned the tide of the game.”

LeVert ran the show and Harris scored in bunches as the Nets’ second unit put together a 27-5 run spanning the first and second periods to take control against the Heat. Atkinson said there was a point when he called a play from the sideline and Le Vert waved him off, calling what he described as “a screen for DeMarre [Carroll] and he knocked it down. It was a simple play, a quick hitter.”

Said Atkinson, “That’s when you know a player starts to take ownership of what we’re doing and seeing something I didn’t see out there, and we ended up scoring. That’s the confidence he’s starting to get having the ball in his hands. You can just see his command. It’s not only the basketball play, it’s mentally and verbally leading his teammates. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s got pretty good leadership abilities.”

LeVert may not be starting, but he’s starting to matter more and more for the Nets in his backup role. “As a point guard, I’m a coach on the floor,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got to be the eyes for Coach on the court.”

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