PHOENIX — The relationship between Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving that some believe was the backchannel conduit paving the way for Irving to choose the Nets in free agency now is blossoming on the court. The pair of point guards combined for 67 points to counter the franchise-record 60 scored by Portland’s Damian Lillard and carry the Nets to a 119-115 victory Friday night to begin a season-long five-game road trip that continues against the Suns on Sunday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Irving has been wildly productive all season, and his 33-point effort against the Trail Blazers was no exception. But despite being used by coach Kenny Atkinson as part of the Nets’ finishing lineup the majority of time this season, Dinwiddie had been struggling with his three-point shot and turnovers until his breakout 34-point effort on 11-for-18 shooting, including 6-for-10 from three-point range against the Blazers.
Atkinson said he had been talking with Dinwiddie about finding ways to play better, and he used Dzanan Musa with the second unit to space the floor and give Dinwiddie the room he needs to operate. “I thought that helped, but it was all him,” Atkinson said of the lineup adjustment. “He was just super-aggressive. When his three ball goes down, it just changes everything. Now, you’ve got to get up on him, and then he gets to the rim. He starts getting to the free-throw line. Him making those perimeter shots is huge.”
When Irving joined the Nets, some questioned what kind of leadership he might provide after clashing with some of the Celtics’ top young players last season. But Atkinson said Irving has made a positive impact on Dinwiddie in particular.
“I think Kyrie coaches him and holds him accountable and coaches him hard, which is good,” Atkinson said. “I think they have mutual respect obviously, but I saw them talking a lot tonight.
“Sometimes for Spencer when something goes wrong or we didn’t run something right, Kyrie will say something to him. That’s what you have to do as a leader on the team. So, they have a lot of conversations. I think it’s good leadership by Kyrie . . . It’s so huge. Kyrie is carrying our message and he repeats it. It just carries a lot more weight.”
As a refugee from the G League, Dinwiddie always has played with a chip on his shoulder, and that sometimes manifests itself in arguments with referees for what he perceives as a lack of respect for his game. Irving smiled at the mention of that trait and said he has encouraged Dinwiddie to move on to the next play when the calls don’t go his way.
“That’s part of the maturity of the player, and that’s also the maturity of knowing how valuable you are to our team,” Irving said. “So, it’s just a mentality. I can see it really kind of changing within him that he understands how valuable he is and getting caught up with the referees is not going to do us any good.
“Spencer specifically, I want him to stay aggressive. Come off those pick-and-rolls, getting downhill and making the defense respect him on the three-point line to open up his drives. Just staying on him and getting the consistency out of him that I know he wants to be at, being the type of level player that I know he wants to be. Tonight was a fresh start for him on this road trip, and he just has to continue it going forward.”
Dinwiddie and Irving have known each other since high school, but their friendship really began to grow when they took the same summer class at Harvard in 2018 and later spent time together over All-Star weekend last February. They are two bright men with eclectic tastes, and Dinwiddie said their bond provides a different dynamic for him.
“One of the good things about having friends who know you a little differently than some other people, it’s cool to be able to have them hold me accountable like they said and to just push me to be better,” Dinwiddie said. “He brings it every night. So, figure out my role on this team and try to just do what both he and Kenny say.”
Asked if their 67-point game in Portland might be a taste of things to come as his chemistry with Irving develops, Dinwiddie said, “Yeah, man, that’s what we talked about for the whole summer. That’s not something we’re shocked by. It’s going to continue to get better the more experience we have.”