Spencer Dinwiddie's return is potent force off bench
When Spencer Dinwiddie told reporters he had targeted a game to return from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb, a natural assumption would have been the Nets’ Monday night game at Barclays Center against the Pistons, Dinwiddie’s former team and one that he loves to torture. The March 11 date would have been exactly six weeks after his surgery, which matched the projected timeline.
But no way was Dinwiddie going to wait that long. “I had no intention of coming back in six weeks,” Dinwiddie said after scoring 28 points to lead the Nets’ comeback win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday. “So, that’s dead. I know the timeline they said, but in terms of surgery timelines, I haven’t listened to those my whole life.”
Indeed, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson can back Dinwiddie up on that point. “I’ve never seen a guy itching more to come back after an injury,” Atkinson said. “He was harassing me to come back. Not all guys are like that.”
Dinwiddie missed only 14 games thanks to the fact his rehab period included the All-Star break, and he beat the six-week timeline by 10 days. The Nets’ game Saturday night in Atlanta was his fifth, and he picked up where he left off, averaging 17.3 points and 4.5 assists over the first four to re-ignite his candidacy for the Sixth Man award.
In the game against Cleveland, Dinwiddie set franchise records with his 11th game of 25-plus points off the bench and his 14th game of 20-plus points off the bench. He is 17 points away from becoming the franchise single-season leader in bench points.
Since Dinwiddie’s return, Atkinson has moved Caris LeVert to the second unit because it gives that group two players with elite ability to drive to the rim, and he has shortened his rotation to nine players, using vets Ed Davis at center and DeMarre Carroll at power forward and mixing in one of the starting perimeter players — Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris or D’Angelo Russell.
“It’s a pretty good bench if you look across the league and go down the [rosters],” Atkinson said. “Is that where we get our advantage a little bit going forward?”
While Dinwiddie was out, the Nets’ offense went into a tailspin and their numbers on drives to the basket took a clear hit. Dinwiddie’s return rectified that.
“Since Spencer has been back, what I’ve been really pleased with is just how he’s pushing the ball,” Atkinson said. “That’s what we’re encouraging him to do. He’s a speed demon, he’s a dragster out there. It’s hard to keep up with him. Keep driving to the rim. It’s a game-changer for us.”
The Nets coach added that one aspect of Dinwiddie’s game that is underappreciated is his ability to guard on the perimeter. In the Nets’ two wins before facing the Hawks, he did an excellent job on Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic and Cavaliers top bench scorer Jordan Clarkson.
“He guards the best perimeter player when he’s out there usually,” Atkinson said, “and he wants the best perimeter player.”
Part of the reason Atkinson paired Dinwiddie and LeVert in the backcourt had to do with the numbers they have put up together in the past. “I’m not privy to all that information,” Dinwiddie said of the analytics. “I told Caris, ‘Look, on the second unit, we score the ball. That’s what we do. So, when you’re out there, run and I’ll kick it to you. And I don’t want you looking back unless they stop you. Go out there and get buckets.’”
Dinwiddie said Atkinson’s decision to shrink the rotation to nine players has paid dividends because it gives players more time to get into a good rhythm. “DLo’s job is to go out there and set the tone, especially with Caris and myself coming back from injury,” Dinwiddie said. “We’ve got to step in and fill in the gaps, be aggressive and play to our strengths.”
Now that he’s had a five-game warmup, Dinwiddie is looking forward to Monday’s big game against the Pistons that has playoff implications for two teams fighting for seeding in the Eastern Conference standings. Dinwiddie said he still has friends on the Pistons and bears no ill will toward an organization that gave up on him, but he has a funny way of showing it.
“I wish them the best, just not when they’re playing us,” Dinwiddie said. “And when we play them on Monday, I’m planning on winning.” With a wink, he added, “Hopefully, this time it won’t take one of the two game-winners I’ve got against them.”