All the season-best defensive numbers the Nets achieved in their 95-90 loss to the Knicks on Wednesday argue forcefully in favor of coach Kenny Atkinson’s decision to move second-year forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead into the starting lineup. Atkinson hasn’t determined his starting lineup against the Pacers Friday night at Barclays Center, but it was pretty clear which way he was leaning after practice Thursday.
“I’m not sure if that’s what we’re going to do, but I thought there were a lot of good things,” said Atkinson, citing Hollis-Jefferson’s defense against Kristaps Porzingis and Whitehead’s positive defensive impact despite a poor shooting night. “When the game got tight, he made typical rookie mistakes, but for the most part, I like it. My gut is you could see more of it.”
Atkinson scoffed at the notion the Nets are too small with 6-7 Hollis-Jefferson at power forward ahead of 6-8 Trevor Booker, suggesting the shorter player actually is “longer” because his speed and arm length allow him to cover slightly more territory. The hidden benefit might be the way Booker handled his move to the second unit. He was energetic at both ends, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds in just 16 minutes.
“He is one of my favorites, he’s one of my pets,” Atkinson said of Booker. “He’s just a team guy. He was kind of excited, like, ‘Let me get out there with that young group.’ I just love his demeanor and his attitude. He fits everything we’re trying to do.”
Booker said Atkinson informed him of the change Wednesday morning. He understands the value of his experience to a younger group of players. “He just wanted to switch some things up and wanted me to run with the younger guys, which I was fine with,” Booker said. “Switching up the lineup is not a bad thing. He said it wasn’t anything that I did.
“I enjoyed it actually. I thought we did a pretty good job playing with each other . . . That second group was just moving the ball and shots came my way, so I took them.”
Booker and Atkinson agreed it was concerning that the Nets squandered another double-digit lead in the fourth quarter thanks to 20.0-percent shooting from three-point range and 21 turnovers leading to 27 Knicks points.
“It’s just flat-out mistakes from younger players that need more experience,” Atkinson said. “At the end of the day, they cost you big-time. When the pressure mounts and [opponents] start pressuring us, I think mistakes can multiply with younger players.
“I do feel in my heart that we’re improving. It’s hard to see because fans and the media will say, ‘How can this guy say that? They have nine wins.’ But I do feel like improvement is happening.”
The hard part is staying the course.