If his two starts at power forward — and the past two Nets wins that coincided with them — are any indication, second-round pick Rodions Kurucs has torn down that rookie wall he hit just before the All-Star break and again is a source of positive energy for the team’s playoff push.
After a win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday night in which Kurucs played well against All-Star Kevin Love, coach Kenny Atkinson essentially confirmed that Kurucs will be the starting power forward even when Treveon Graham returns from an injury.
Kurucs started at small forward earlier, but his numbers nosedived in an eight-game span starting near the end of January before Atkinson benched him for a couple of games and then gave him limited time.
After three straight losses, Atkinson started Kurucs for the first time at power forward, and he produced in two straight wins that ran the Nets’ record to 20-11 when he starts.
Kurucs had 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots and was a team-high plus-9 against the Cavaliers. “We sat him for a few games, and he didn’t get flustered about that,” Atkinson said. “He’s our starting four, and I felt with those rebounds, it helps us realize he can play four in this league.”
Atkinson previously projected Kurucs as a “stretch four” because of his shooting range but was uncertain whether he was strong enough yet. The 210-pound Kurucs had to guard Love, who outweighed him by 40 pounds. Love put up All-Star numbers with 24 points and 16 rebounds, but he had to work for it.
“That was tough,” Kurucs said with his usual enthusiasm. “He’s heavy. I knew it would be hard. I did my job — what Coach wanted from me . . . Just get in his legs and front him every time. Don’t ever let him get the ball in the post as he wanted to try to do.”
The older Nets obviously appreciate the puppy-dog energy Kurucs provides. “Rodi is extremely important for us,” Spencer Dinwiddie said. “His energy and his spark are a different dynamic than anybody else brings to this team.”
Graham is stronger, but he has been struggling on offense. Kurucs is 7-for-16 from three-point range in the past three games.
Asked if he believes he can maintain his grip on the starting spot, Kurucs said, “It’s working out, so until it [doesn’t] work, I think Kenny will keep it. If it’s not working, he’ll change something maybe. But for now, it’s important to keep the same pace, the same things.”
The rookie said he never experienced a playoff-type atmosphere when he played in Europe and that he’s looking forward to it. “Guys have told me it’s way different in the playoffs,” he said. “Everyone is fighting. It’s like they say, ‘Two dogs, one bone.’ Who’s going to be on top?”