Culture change is supposed to be a time-consuming process, but the early signs of a new toughness — “Brooklyn grit,” as the ad slogan goes — are taking hold in the Nets’ organization. It literally was on the face of rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead who left Tuesday night’s game against Minnesota after Timberwolves forward Gorgui Dieng stepped on his head.
When Whitehead returned to the bench, he said teammate Caris LeVert told him, “I had a shoe mark on my face.”
Whitehead didn’t let a little thing like that stop him, and no matter how many times the Nets allowed Minnesota back into the game, they were resolved to close out a win, which they did by scoring the final seven points in a 119-110 victory at Barclays Center.
The Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins, who scored 36 points and hit six of seven three-pointers sucked the air out of the place with a jumper that cut the Nets’ lead to 112-110 with 56.4 seconds left, but Bojan Bogdanovic responded with a three with 37.4 seconds left to keep the Nets in front. Whitehead then won a wild scramble for a rebound, was fouled and made both shots as the Nets pulled away.
The Nets, who are a surprising 3-4, had six players in double figures led by Brook Lopez, who had 26 points, including three three-pointers. Trevor Booker added 15 points and nine rebounds, and Sean Kilpatrick had 14 points and five rebounds off the bench. Starting point guard Whitehead finished with only six points but had a career-high seven assists and seven rebounds with just two turnovers.
“I don’t know how many charges he took tonight,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of Whitehead. “I know he was in a lot of scrums, but he tried to take like five charges. That’s Coney Island toughness. We are getting to feel comfortable with him out there. I felt he had command of the game.”
The Nets took a 66-65 halftime lead based on their 62.2 percent shooting, but the Timberwolves were hanging tough behind 19 points from Karl-Anthony Towns. Atkinson was upset by Minnesota’s 25-16 halftime rebounding advantage and 18-2 margin in second-chance points.
“Obviously, at halftime we were pretty upset,” Atkinson said. “We emphasize our guards’ rebounds, and our guards got 15 rebounds in the second half. In the first half, they got three, so, good job by them.”
Although the Nets made only one of nine three-pointers in the third quarter, they maintained an 88-84 lead heading to the final period because of their improved rebounding. They also began driving to the basket and finished with a 54-42 advantage in points in the paint. More impressively, they held Towns to two second-half points.
Coming down the stretch, Minnesota put together an 11-2 run for a 102-100 lead on a three by Wiggins with 5:54 left to play. But Lopez tied the game with a layup and had six points in the Nets’ 19-8 finishing kick.
Asked if the Nets were inspired by the toughness Whitehead showed, Lopez said, “No question. That’s the toughness we need and the definition of Brooklyn grit. That’s homegrown, and we need that from every player of ours.”
Playing in place of injured Jeremy Lin, Whitehead has been progressing by leaps and bounds. He said the encounter with Dieng’s foot left him seeing stars but was determined to return. “It’s the way I grew up,” the Coney Island native said, “being tough and not letting things you can overcome stop you from playing.”