Brooklyn Nets: Kenny Atkinson’s defensive gamble changed game

Brooklyn Nets. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson had seen Charlotte Hornets star Kemba Walker score 12 straight points for his team when he reached into his bag of tricks.

The Brooklyn Nets were on the verge of letting the other team’s best player beat them.

Kemba Walker had scored 12 straight points for the Charlotte Hornets, capped by back-to-back pull-up 3-pointers, to put the Hornets up by eight with 3:20 to go.

It was then that Nets coach Kenny Atkinson pulled a defensive scheme out of the way-back machine and dusted it off.

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Brooklyn spent most of the rest of the game using the old box-and-one look against Walker, a defensive look that has fallen out of favor given that a four-man zone is extremely susceptible to being shot over from behind the arc.

Spencer Dinwiddie spent most of his defensive time shadowing Walker, trying to force the ball out of his hands and denying him from getting it back. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson took a few turns. Joe Harris manned the “and-one” spot for a bit.

Even rookie Rodions Kurucs guarded Walker for several possessions.

Atkinson is 51 years old, so his early playing days happened in that now-strange time before there was a 3-point line at every level of competition.

Back in the early- to mid-1980s, when facing a team that had one dominant scorer, it wasn’t uncommon to put a man on that scorer, box up the other four defenders and dare the other players to beat you.

Did it work Wednesday night? Over the final 13:20 of the game — the end of the fourth quarter and the two overtime — Walker was held to four points on 1-of-5 shooting and went 0-for-4 from 3-point range.

Jeremy Lamb scored eight points down that stretch and Malik Monk added six, but also committed the game-losing turnover and fired up an airball from 3-point range.

And the Nets outscored the Hornets 38-28 over that final 13:10 to steal a win when it looked like they were wobbling and ready to be knocked out.

It’s a tactic that may not work again on Friday night when the Hornets and Nets go right back out there in Charlotte on the back end of the home-and-home set. But it got the job done enough that Brooklyn was able to defend its home court — something it’s gotten much better at of late.

It also showed the creativity Atkinson has as an in-game strategist when he has parts he trusts. He finished the game using veteran Jared Dudley along with Hollis-Jefferson, Harris, Kurucs and Dinwiddie for the entirety of the two overtimes because he trusted that group.

Dinwiddie not only had the bulk of the defensive responsibilities against Walker over that final 13:20 of the game, but he also scored 17 points with five assists and no turnovers.

Harris scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in that span, including two game-tying 3s late in regulation and the game-winning layup after a steal with 3.4 seconds left.

Kurucs had just three points, but he only attempted one shot — a monstrous corner 3 with 1:47 left that tied the game. He also had four rebounds in the final 13:10 (as well as both Brooklyn turnovers, which both came as a result of a youthful rush to try and make a play).

Dudley hit his only shot of the final 13:10, a 3-pointer in the second overtime that put the Nets up by four. RHJ had four points, four boards and a block down the finishing stretch.

It was a huge win that allowed the Brooklyn Nets to creep closer to the top eight in the Eastern Conference (they now trail Charlotte and the Miami Heat by just a half-game).

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And it happened because Kenny Atkinson was willing to take a chance on an old defensive scheme when the chips were down.