Despite mounting frustration following close losses to Boston and Toronto, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, there’s a palpable sense in the Nets’ locker room that the pieces are starting to fall into place. The biggest piece looming on the horizon is the imminent return of D’Angelo Russell from arthroscopic knee surgery.
Russell isn’t expected to play against Detroit Wednesday night at Barclays Center, but while the Nets say there is no timeline for his return to game action, he has one practice under his belt, could practice again Thursday and might get the green light to play soon. Is it possible Russell could be the closer they need to get them over the hump in close games?
Coach Kenny Atkinson winced at that notion on Tuesday, but he agreed Russell strengthens the Nets and relishes the thought of pairing him with Spencer Dinwiddie, who has played well as the starting point guard in Russell’s 27-game absence.
“I really believe in closer-by-committee,” Atkinson said. “I don’t believe in giving it to one guy, and all of a sudden, the miracle is going to happen. It’s going to be different guys making plays. Now, I know he’s going to help our depth, and we’re going to be stronger because of it.”
When the season began, Jeremy Lin was the point guard and Russell was the two-guard even though he figured to have the ball in his hands often. Lin ruptured a patella tendon in the opener and was lost for the season, but Dinwiddie has averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 assists in his 28 starts and could team with Russell similar to how Lin would have.
“We’ll make the decision when it presents itself, but I’m comfortable with it,” Atkinson said of a Dinwiddie-Russell pairing. “Spencer is playing so well that we need him on the court.
“Obviously, what’s good about D’Angelo is that he proved with Jeremy that he has absolutely no problem playing on the ball and off the ball. He likes both. The great thing about Spencer is that he’s 6-6. Sometimes, when you have two small point guards, it’s like, who do you put on the two-guard? Spencer can play any 6-6 guy in the league.”
Atkinson praised the example Dinwiddie has set with his work habits, and he said the former G Leaguer has seized the opportunity and grown more consistent. “He’s put his finger through the ceiling,” Atkinson said, “and now, he’s trying to punch it with his fist.”
As for Russell’s return, Atkinson cautioned that it will be a gradual phase-in. “He responded well to the G League practice,” Atkinson said. “That’s a huge step. The feedback was really positive . . . We’re a patient group. It will definitely be a gradual buildup. You can expect that. That’s just how we do it.”