Nets coach Kenny Atkinson followed through on his recent vow to reward good defense with more playing time when he inserted rookie Isaiah Whitehead and second-year player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson into the Nets’ starting lineup against the Knicks Wednesday night at Barclays Center. The question now is whether it was a firm step toward the future or just another spin in their game of roster roulette.
The new starting lineup was the 21st different one for the Nets this season. Whitehead replaced Spencer Dinwiddie at point guard, Hollis-Jefferson took over the power forward spot from veteran Trevor Booker, and the result was a surge in energy and the Nets’ best defensive effort of the season. But they still blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead by giving up a 16-2 run that led to a 95-90 Knicks victory.
“They picked up their intensity, their heat on the ball,” Atkinson said of the Knicks’ comeback. “We turned it over, and we didn’t get the shots we wanted. They got second and third shots. That was the story of the game.”
Well, it was the deciding factor, but part of the story was that the Nets held the Knicks to season-lows for an opponent after each quarter and for the game, hounded the Knicks into 35.4 percent shooting, including 22.2 percent from three-point range and prompted Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek to bench Carmelo Anthony for the entire fourth quarter after he was held to 15 points on 6-of-22 shooting.
“We were 1-15 in January,” Atkinson said. “We needed to make a change. Rondae competed hard and got rebounds. Isaiah played great and was plus-11.”
Hollis-Jefferson was a force with a team-high 16 points and eight rebounds. Whitehead had only four points on 2-for-9 shooting, but he was a defensive presence. Booker reacted to the lineup change with 12 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
While Whitehead and Hollis-Jefferson got the starting nods, Atkinson continued to use first-round rookie wing player Caris LeVert in a major role. He scored 10 points but had a scoreless second half.
All three young players were in the game when the Knicks made their 16-2 fourth-quarter run to grab an 82-78 lead. During that stretch, the Nets made only one of eight shots and committed five turnovers. It seemed they were putting too much pressure on themselves to make big plays.
“We made hard plays, the look-away when you can make a bounce pass,” Atkinson said. “We kicked it to the curb on 10 or 15 possessions in transition when we could have made the simple play. Not just the kids. It was across the board.”
Hollis-Jefferson and Whitehead both were thrilled to regain starting jobs they had earlier in the season. “It’s [big], them having confidence in the young guys to give a spark,” Whitehead said. But he also blamed himself for not calling the right plays or getting the best shots for his team in the fourth quarter.
“Sometimes, we get caught up in the heat of the moment and things go south,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “We try to make the difficult pass. But if we control that better and stay within our game, we’ll do better.”