Obviously, the Brooklyn Nets-New York Knicks matchup has lost some of its recent appeal, but when you’re still searching for your tenth win of the season, defeating your lone rival still holds some serious weight. Last week, head coach Kenny Atkinson threatened to make lineup changes and tonight find made them — swapping in youngsters Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Isaiah Whitehead for Spencer Dinwiddie and Trevor Booker.
The impact was almost instant, sparking the Nets to an early 13-7 lead, Hollis-Jefferson leading the way with 4 points. Not long after, Caris LeVert checked in, marking the earliest point I can recall all three of the Nets’ future parts being on the floor at once. If the Nets, now certainly sunk, are taking the training wheels off the prospects, the early results are positive.
But it was Booker, who gave away to Hollis-Jefferson in the starting lineup, that subbed in and helped the Nets take advantage of the Knicks’ even weaker-than-usual bench. His 6 points, 2 rebounds, and an assist, coupled with LeVert’s two long three-pointers, had the Nets up as much as 24-11.
While the fouls piled up, the Knicks’ Megatron-like star Kristaps Porzingis heated up in a big way, including a massive get-out-of-my-way slam dunk halfway through the quarter to the Nets’ lead to just 29-21. Booker’s third personal foul would cost the Nets their momentum and the Knicks slowly chipped away without Carmelo Anthony on the floor. The Nets, who started 10/16, went through an ice-cold 3/9, plagued by the off-the-mark shooting off Sean Kilpatrick, Brook Lopez, and the newly returned Joe Harris.
Sasha Vujacic, who you may remember as a former Net back in New Jersey, was put on the court to antagonize Whitehead and LeVert, prying, and nudging, and chatting in the rookie’s ears whenever possible, the youngsters responded in spades. Following a Whitehead razzle-dazzle behind-the-back pass, the home team would hold a 45-38 lead at the break.
— Justis Doucet (@JDouce18) February 2, 2017
The second half started similarly to the opener, with Hollis-Jefferson aggressively taking sleeping Knicks off the dribble and Bojan Bogdanovic shooting with more of his inspired confidence. The major difference, however? The (semi-)awakening of one Carmelo Anthony, the future Hall of Famer that had enough after a dismal 2-11 first half, scoring on three consecutive possessions to put the Nets’ second unit to the test.
But each time the Knicks came with a metaphorical punch, the Nets hit back with one of their own — a much-welcomed sight considering a majority of the deep, long runs this team has given up over the season. But could they survive the full 48 minutes? Could they outlast a streaky Knicks team? Without a trigger-happy Anthony on the floor, the Knicks suddenly put together a quick run to send this tightly contested game to the fourth quarter 69-64, the Nets on top.
Unfortunately, the youngsters — Whitehead in particular — got too focused on doing it all on their own and Nets blew all their predisposed good will and the Knicks earned their first lead of the game with 5:42 to go. While the Nets desperately searched for answers on offense, they certainly went away from the trustworthy Lopez, who had the worst statistical output of his career against his cross-rival foes.
With 1:22 left on the clock, the Nets were clinging for dear life against a red-hot Knicks team that decided to sit Anthony (6-22) for the entire fourth quarter. Following a Bogdanovic three-pointer, the Nets trailed 87-84 and searched for a big stop defensively — but a frantic Jennings shot somehow resulted in a Willy Hernangomez tip-in, a type of basket that has come to define the Nets this season.
One miracle heave from Porzingis and another empty trip from the Nets later and the game was signed, sealed, and delivered: woof. So much promise, so much optimism, no late-game execution — it’s a pattern that’s tough to avoid.
The stats: 10 PTS, 4/9 FG, 4 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 3 TOV
If Whitehead’s performance was inspired, then what does that make Caris LeVert’s showing? If I may, he was a modern day Caristotle on that beautiful herringbone, stepping to Carmelo Anthony without being fazed, ignoring the pestering Sasha Vujacic without a second thought, and delivering on both ends of the court.
He missed out on the Knicks’ game in November, but, boy, he made up for it in a few quarters.
The stats: 16 PTS, 6/11 FG, 8 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 1 BLK, 4 TOV
The trio of talented youngsters were on full display on Wednesday, perhaps all outshined by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who played one of the most aggressive games of his entire career. Perhaps, as the work-in-progress shot comes along, Hollis-Jefferson has decided to just spend his time at the free throw line if he must shoot at all — and, spoiler alert, it’s working.
More of this, please, Rondae — it’s a great look.