CHICAGO — Playing without injured Kyrie Irving for the first time this season, the Nets rallied down the stretch behind 20 fourth-quarter points by Spencer Dinwiddie for a 117-111 victory over the Bulls on Saturday night at United Center.
The win ended a three-game Nets losing streak and gave them a 2-3 record at the end of their five-game road trip.
The Nets trailed by 11 in the second quarter and foul trouble forced them to dip deep into their bench, using young players Theo Pinson, Nic Claxton and Dzanan Musa. Even Iman Shumpert, who signed as a free agent on Monday, was thrown into the mix. Starters Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple all were playing with five fouls late.
“We’ve got to trust these guys,” Atkinson said of his second unit. “They put in the work, they’ve been in our program a while, so they understand what we’re doing . . . That was the ultimate team victory when your best player is out, let’s be honest, and everybody steps it up a level. It’s a real boost to our morale.”
The Nets took an 80-79 lead on a dunk by DeAndre Jordan with 10:23 left. The teams traded the lead four times and were tied at 86 when the Nets put together a 13-6 surge to take a 99-92 lead on Prince’s three-pointer with 3:43 to play. Dinwiddie had six points in that stretch, and when he made three foul shots at the 1:35 mark, it pushed the Nets’ lead to 105-96.
Describing how Dinwiddie stepped up at crunch time, Atkinson said, “He took over, his drives, how aggressive he was, understanding the mismatch, understanding when to get out of the blitz. He was just fantastic. When they were blitzing us, we got it to [Jordan] in that pocket, and he made some outstanding passes.”
Seven straight Bulls points by Zach LaVine followed by Lauri Markkanen’s three-pointer cut their deficit to 113-111 with 9.5 seconds left. But the Nets (5-7) wound up hitting their last 15 foul shots in the final period.
Through the first three quarters, Dinwiddie had only four points and the Bulls often double-teamed him to force the ball out of his hands. “If you put two on the ball, then my job is just to get off it,” Dinwiddie said. “Then in the fourth, they were a little bit later with their blitzes, and also, I was trying to be a little more aggressive. But if I had started that earlier, it wouldn’t have been sustainable.”
Dinwiddie often took over games last season, but with Irving running the show, Dinwiddie has deferred to him as well as to Caris LeVert, who underwent thumb surgery on Thursday and is expected to be out at least five weeks.
“I’m not Kyrie, you know what I mean?” Dinwiddie said. “He’s going to continue to lead this team and do a great job. The only focus was winning, so I just tried to gauge what needed to be done to win the game.”
Dinwiddie had 24 points and Joe Harris added 22. LaVine led the Bulls (4-9) with 36 points, Wendell Carter Jr. had 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Markkanen totaled 16 points and 10 rebounds. They made an NBA- season-high 38 of 41 foul shots.
Despite third-quarter foul trouble, the Nets’ reserves came back to tie the score at 73 when Shumpert scored five straight points, and they trailed by only 78-74 at the end of the period.
Even as they gained control down the stretch, Temple, then Prince, then Dinwiddie each picked up his fifth foul. “We had a lot of people staring over that cliff, baby,” Dinwiddie said of possibly fouling out. “That’s tough, but we found a way to pull through.”