Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is a creature of the modern NBA, a devotee of analytics, a believer in spreading the floor and working for open three-pointers and layups. He loves to play small ball, especially at the end of games, putting as many shooters as possible on the floor.
Now Atkinson believes he has the right roster to make it a staple of his game plans. Nets fans saw it in the fourth quarter and overtime in a 134-133 overtime loss Sunday at Memphis. Atkinson put guards Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris on the floor with center Jarrett Allen. He later replaced Allen with undersized power forward Taurean Prince at center.
“I felt they went small, so we kind of matched going small,” Atkinson said. “I liked it. Joe was at the four. I think you’ll see games with as many good perimeter players as we have. There’s going to be different guys in there. Sometimes we go super-small with Taurean at the five. We need that in our package.”
You can’t argue with the results Atkinson’s small lineups have gotten on offense. The Irving-LeVert-Dinwiddie trio was at the heart of a fourth-quarter surge that built an eight-point lead against the Grizzlies with 3:20 left in regulation. That lead dissipated down the stretch when Atkinson added Harris as a fourth guard and then subbed Prince for Allen as the Grizzlies came back to push it to overtime.
After the game, Atkinson blamed poor defensive chemistry and missed assignments. Irving suggested they need to step up their physicality on the defensive end, but he admitted that playing small can have a negative impact on defense.
“Of course, when you’re undersized, it’s going to make it difficult,” he said. “But you’ve just got to play position defense, know the analytics, know the numbers, know who you want to give the ball to, know who the most important guy is on the floor, and you just play the numbers.”
Both losses for the Nets (1-2) came by a single point in overtime, but they are allowing an average of 123.3 points per game. Although they have cut down on the number of their opponents’ three-point attempts in the past two games, which is the important number to Atkinson, the fact remains that the Knicks and Grizzlies shot a combined 52.7 percent from three-point range (29-for- 55) in those games.
“I felt like it was a game we sort of beat ourselves a little bit,” Harris said. “Mental mistakes, stuff on the defensive end. You can’t give up 134 points, even in overtime, to win the game . . . We regressed a little bit, where just individual pride, keeping your man in front of you, simple backside rotations, whatever it might be, are just sort of a little bit off at this point. I think it starts with taking individual ownership and being able to guard your man.”
The next three games on the schedule are against playoff teams from last season, starting with the Pacers on Wednesday at Barclays Center. As much as Atkinson loves to play small, the Nets need to find defensive cohesion to avoid repeated shootouts.