TORONTO — They say hindsight is 20-20, and when coach Kenny Atkinson reviewed the Nets’ meltdown in their loss to the Hornets Wednesday night at Barclays Center, he identified one change he could have made that might have limited Dwight Howard, who had 32 points and 30 rebounds, and prevented the Nets from blowing a 23-point third-quarter lead.
Atkinson admitted he considered inserting forward Dante Cunningham, who is a physical defender but was available for the first time since missing the previous two games while undergoing the concussion protocol. When the Nets defeated the Hornets in Charlotte on March 8, Cunningham was instrumental in limiting Howard to 19 points on just eight shot attempts and seven rebounds.
“We talked about putting Dante in there, and quite honestly, that’s on me,” Atkinson said. “I didn’t feel comfortable, and he hadn’t really practiced because he was in the protocol. We debated it and decided against it and wanted to give Jarrett a run at it and ‘Q’ a run at it. That was something we definitely could have done differently.”
Rookie Jarrett Allen and Quincy Acy obviously had trouble controlling Howard. Based on Atkinson’s postgame comments, the possibility of trying either 6-11, 255-pound Jahlil Okafor or 7-1, 275-pound Timofey Mozgov to put a big body on Howard wasn’t really a consideration.
The defensive numbers with Okafor and Mozgov have not been impressive, and neither provides three-point shooting to space the floor on offense. Cunningham is only 6-8, 230 pounds, but the nine-year veteran has shown strength plus the ability to knock down three-pointers at a 48.4-percent clip since joining the Nets.
No doubt, Atkinson will consider returning Cunningham to his regular minutes when the Nets (23-49) face the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors (53-19) Friday night at Air Canada Centre. When the Raptors defeated the Nets on March 13 at Barclays Center, center Jonas Valanciunas dominated their small lineup with 26 points and 14 rebounds, and Toronto outscored the Nets in the paint, 62-36.
Discussing Cunningham before the Hornets game, Atkinson said, “What I’ve seen, I’ve been really happy with. He’s a man out there. He’s a veteran that understands how to play defense. He’s played the three, four and five in this league and can switch with them. He has a hit-first mentality of rebounding, and he’ll lay the wood to go get it . . . He’s not seven-foot, but he’s a strong dude.”
The Nets have only 10 games remaining, and it’s fair to argue Atkinson should give Okafor a greater opportunity to play before he heads to free agency. But unlike many teams with losing records, the Nets don’t own their lottery pick and have no incentive to tank.
Asked how he handles the decision to play young players or veterans, Atkinson said, “It’s a balance. We obviously want to, at the end of the day, win the game. That’s overriding. That’s what we’re here for.
“We also understand that we might have to take some risks and put a younger player in there just so he gets some experience in these moments. We’ve gone both ways, honestly. It’s a delicate balance.”