The Nets opened their post-All-Star break stretch run with a roller-coaster loss to the 76ers in which they trailed by 16 points, then led by 20 and then lost in overtime. During the course of all that drama, coach Kenny Atkinson made a move that Nets fans likely will see many more times for the rest of the season.
Atkinson leaned heavily on veteran backup center DeAndre Jordan rather than third-year starter Jarrett Allen, playing Jordan a season-high 37 minutes, including almost 22 minutes in the second half and OT, and even starting him in the third quarter. Asked how Jordan changed the early momentum when he replaced Allen in the first period to begin a 40-10 Nets run while Allen was on the bench, Atkinson expanded it to note that veterans Wilson Chandler and Garrett Temple also came off the bench with Jordan.
“Veterans that know how to come out of an All-Star break and be ready to play,” Atkinson said of that group. “That’s why you have vets on your team. The first group did not come with the requisite physicality, mental readiness, all the things you can talk about. We were not ready to play the game. Some veteran guys that have been in the league, they know they have to start playing more physical, and that’s what turned the game.”
Last season, veterans Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley played key roles in helping the Nets make the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. All were let go in the move to create cap space for free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, both of whom are out for the season. But Jordan came as part of the package with Durant and Irving, a signing that created some skepticism, and he has emerged as maybe the Nets’ most vocal leader.
Jordan recorded his 10th double-double of the season with 14 points and 15 rebounds against the 76ers, and he basically has finished the Nets’ past four games at center.
Rather than use Jordan according to certain matchups, Atkinson admitted the veteran’s overall role has been growing. “It’s a credit to him. He’s kind of forcing us to play him more with his really stellar play. It’s just that simple. It’s a great thing for us. We have a kind of two-headed monster there at the center position, but it’s more than matchup-based. It’s been earned by his stellar play.”
Allen struggled in the playoffs last season against 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid, and that happened again Thursday. Make no mistake. Jordan also had trouble controlling Embiid, who had 39 points, 16 rebounds and two blocked shots, but he gave the Nets a chance to win the game.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Atkinson said of Jordan’s role. “We finish games with him. I’m getting to know him better personality-wise, getting to know his game better. I think he understands he has a real leadership role right now with a lot of young guys around him. He’s taken that seriously, and I expect it to continue.”
Asked if the matchup against Embiid was part of the thinking when they signed Jordan, Atkinson said, “Sure, that’s part of it.” Turning to the latest meeting with the Sixers, Atkinson added: “We thought about do we take DeAndre out? But man, we need his physicality. We need his veteran presence, we need his rebounding, his toughness. I think it’s a big reason we were in the game at all. Having him in there with his experience and ability to play a guy like Embiid was huge.”
His teammates recognize the impact Jordan is making.
“Oh man, veteran leadership,” Spencer Dinwiddie said of what Jordan brings to the table. “Obviously, him being a bigger body, he’s capable of putting up resistance against a guy like Joel. Obviously, his rebounding and field-goal percentage are elite, some of the best of all-time, and he’s dynamic on the defensive end.”
The Nets are going to need more of that from Jordan to maintain their current seventh playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Chandler offers another dynamic
Chandler is another veteran who has done a solid job off the bench and who might see his role expand as the Nets move toward the playoffs. Lately, Atkinson has experimented with using him as a “small-ball” center because he has the size and strength to defend bigger men, but he also can hit three-pointers to spread the floor on offense. It’s an approach the Rockets and coach Mike D’Antoni have made the staple of their offense with undersized P.J. Tucker at center.
Of course, Atkinson was an assistant under D’Antoni with the Knicks and considers him one of his mentors. “I do think you monitor the league and see what’s going on,” Atkinson said. “I do have an eye on trends and what other teams are doing. We know the troubles we’ve had against teams that put five shooters out there, and we’re monitoring what it looks like with Wilson at the five. Heck, you could play (Rodions Kurucs) at the five. You could do a lot of things.
“Potentially, if we can get in the playoffs, there’s a possibility (to play small). You have to have things in your back pocket that are a little different. It’s something we could look at more in these last 29 games.”
Of course, next season when Durant is healthy, it’s a virtual certainty Atkinson will embrace the chance to “go small” with a superstar at the five much of the time.