MIAMI — For two seasons under general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have preached the importance of building a winning culture. That’s why Atkinson has approached the final games of the season as if they were the playoffs for his 51-loss team, and he made some tough lineup decisions Saturday night at American Airlines Arena that underlined his commitment to playing tough and sticking to his principles.
Obeying his gut instincts, Atkinson benched starting point guard D’Angelo Russell after he had a rough start in the first 6:33 and reduced playing time for rookie center Jarrett Allen and veteran forward Dante Cunningham down the stretch. Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie came off the bench and partnered with the tough play of forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to help the Nets pull out a 110-109 overtime win against the Heat in a game Atkinson described as a “brawl.”
It was all of that as the officials basically let the teams have at each other in the fourth quarter and overtime, and Hollis-Jefferson took a shot to the face near the end that required six stitches to close. But he finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead seven Nets (25-51) in double figures.
LeVert totaled 19 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists and Dinwiddie had 12 points and 12 assists. James Johnson and Goran Dragic each had 18 points for the Heat (41-36), which needed the win to lock up a playoff berth.
“We showed a stretch of physicality we haven’t all year,” Atkinson said. “It was a good, old-fashioned brawl. I’m glad we answered the bell . . . Where we are, it’s huge to beat Orlando and then come in here and beat a good Heat team in this type of game.”
Asked why he went with LeVert and Dinwiddie over Russell, Atkinson said, “Those other guys came in and started playing great. You go with it as a coach. It was a feel.”
Of Russell’s reaction, Atkinson said, “He was great on the bench and supportive in the locker room. He’ll get back on the horse.”
But in this case, Atkinson rode with LeVert and Dinwiddie and was rewarded. The Nets overcame a 14-point second-quarter deficit and came back to build a nine-point lead with 7:21 left in regulation. As Nets leads tend to do against good teams, though, this one disappeared.
In overtime, the teams traded the lead four times. Coming down the stretch, the Nets made what LeVert called “winning plays that Coach Kenny has been preaching about.” LeVert came from behind to block a layup attempt by Justise Winslow that would have won the game in regulation. Then he hit a go-ahead jumper for a 107-105 lead in OT and followed that by rebounding a miss by the Heat’s Josh Richardson. DeMarre Carroll then made a steal from Richardson.
After Johnson hit a layup for a 109-108 Heat lead, LeVert sank an 11-foot floater in the lane with 34.2 seconds left that turned out to be the game-winner.
LeVert’s performance capped a day in which he became the only player in the NBA with at least 700 points, 200 assists and 60 steals off the bench. “That’s a bad boy,” Hollis-Jefferson said of his close friend. “I’m glad he’s with us. He’s growing, and it’s good to see. I’m proud of him.”
LeVert said the Nets have lost too many close games against good teams but added, “We’re getting better each time. We’re going to be in a lot of those games. Today was a step in the right direction.”
Atkinson couldn’t agree more. Speaking of LeVert’s play down the stretch, he said, “He’s a young guy who’s really growing more and more confident. I’ve been on him about improving his defense, and tonight he made that block. It’s a little bit of poetic justice.”