Kenny Atkinson had to laugh when someone pointed out that the Nets and Lakers, the two worst teams in the NBA, have the two highest-scoring benches in the league presumably because they lack enough top-tier talent to rise in the standings.
“I’ll have to study that a little deeper,” the Nets coach said Sunday night. “I didn’t know that stat. But we’re searching a little bit, trying a lot of different guys. And we don’t play our starters 40 minutes a game. Brook [Lopez] is our top minute guy. I think he’s at 29. So, guys are getting more opportunity coming off the bench.”
Say what you will about a season in which the Nets have compiled an 18-59 record, including their 91-82 victory over Atlanta Sunday night at Barclays Center. But a team that began the season with a roster many critics said was better-suited to the D-League than the NBA has worked diligently to develop depth and experience, and their 9-10 record over the past 19 games is a measure of their improvement.
After scoring 72 points the previous night in a win over Orlando, the Nets’ bench players made just two of their first 23 shots and had only four points as the third period neared its end. But the second unit fashioned a 15-5 run, including four points each by Isaiah Whitehead and Sean Kilpatrick, spanning the third and fourth quarters to build a 78-63 lead.
Atlanta cut the deficit to 83-80 on a three-point play by Tim Hardaway Jr. with 3:27 left, but Trevor Booker grabbed a key offensive rebound that led to a corner three by Spencer Dinwiddie for an 86-80 cushion that held up. Despite totaling only 24 bench points, five members of the second unit finished with a positive plus-minus figure, and their 30 rebounds helped the Nets to a 51-44 advantage on the boards.
“I think it was their defense,” Atkinson said of the second unit’s end game. “That group is really cohesive defensively. We threw Quincy [Acy, who took three charges] out there, and that helps it even more. Offensively, a lot of guys struggled on that second unit, but they did it with their defense.”
Lopez led the Nets (18-59) with 29 points and added five assists and five blocked shots. Jeremy Lin had 15 points and six assists, and Kilpatrick pulled down 11 rebounds. Reserves scored 20 of the Nets’ final 27 points.
Dennis Schroder topped the Hawks (39-38) with 16 points, and Dwight Howard had 11 points and 11 rebounds.
As Atkinson mentioned, leading scorer Lopez led the Nets entering Sunday night’s game with an average of 29.5 minutes per game, and 10 Nets have averaged at least 20 minutes in their appearances while another 10 averaged 10-plus minutes. Only Chris McCullough, who was traded, averaged single-digit minutes.
Injuries explain why Atkinson has employed 27 different starting lineups, but the Nets’ emphasis on player development was the residue of the organization’s design. “It was a definite plan in place,” Atkinson said. “Obviously, we want to see our first group together, but we need to see other combinations.”
Because of health and endurance considerations, the Nets rested Lopez five times this season and took it slow with rookie Caris LeVert, who was coming back from February foot surgery.
“Part of it was understanding where Brook has come from [with past injuries] and understanding Caris and his situation,” Atkinson added. “Part of it was performance-based and thinking about the future. I’m glad we did it. We’ll see down the line if it helps us, but I think big-picture it was a good strategy.”
Notes and quotes: Guard Joe Harris (sprained shoulder) will not return in the final five games as a precaution against further injury.