BOSTON — It was garbage time in what appeared to be a season-opening blowout loss by the Nets Wednesday night at TD Garden. The Celtics had led by as much as 23 and still were 17 points up when new Nets coach Kenny Atkinson sent in rookie Isaiah Whitehead and second-year man Chris McCullough with 3:57 left to play.
What transpired was utterly shocking as Whitehead and McCullough brought incredible defensive energy and the Nets went on a 16-2 run to cut the deficit to three on a three-pointer by Bojan Bogdanovic with 46.8 seconds remaining. Bogdanovic and Justin Hamilton each had a shot at a game-tying three moments later but missed as the Celtics hung on for a 122-117 victory.
On the morning of the rollout by the new Nets regime, general manager Sean Marks told Newsday, “One thing we won’t compromise on ever will be playing with passion and giving the fans a sense of, ‘Hey, these guys are laying it all on the line.’ That’s something there is no way Kenny will compromise on.”
The surprising ending of Game 1 certainly underlined that commitment. Whitehead and McCullough replaced stars Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez. “I’m extremely proud of those guys for playing the way they did,” Lin said of Whitehead and McCullough. “Did I expect it to be a three-point game? No, but that’s basketball.”
Referring to the home opener Friday night against Indiana, Lin added, “Starting with me and others, I want to bring the same effort Friday night the way they did. That was inspiring.”
Atkinson admitted he only put Whitehead and McCullough in the game to give them a taste of playing in the opener. “I was really pleased, especially with the young guys really fighting,” Atkinson said. “They picked up the pressure and Trevor [Booker] was amazing.”
Bogdanovic said his potential tying three felt as good as it looked before bouncing off the rim, as did Hamilton’s shot. “We got two good looks on the last play,” Bogdanovic said. “We didn’t give up. We showed character. Isaiah pressured the point guard and McCullough got stops.”
Until that final flurry, the story for the Nets was the fact Lopez was limited to 21 minutes, didn’t start the second half and scored only seven points on 1-for-7 shooting. Backup center Hamilton, who was described as a “system fit” by Atkinson because of his outside shooting, had 19 points, including 3-for-6 three-point shooting, and added 10 rebounds. Lin scored 18, and the Nets relied heavily on three-point shooting, hitting 15 of 44 attempts.
Atkinson explained his use of Lopez is part of a long-term plan to “build him up” and prolong his career. Lopez said he met with Atkinson a couple of times to discuss the plan.
“Obviously, it was a difficult decision to come to for me,” Lopez said. “I love being on the floor. But I understand the reasons, and I’m on board.”
Still, Lin said Lopez needs to get more touches. “I need to get Brook the ball in open spots he likes,” Lin said. “We’re in communication about that. I’m going to try to make his life easier.”