Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s difficult 4th season with the Brooklyn Nets, beset by injuries, ineffectiveness and a fall from the rotation, got sweeter Tuesday.
As surprising as it might seem, the final play Tuesday night in the Brooklyn Nets’ potentially season-defining comeback from a 28-point deficit to beat the Sacramento Kings was not supposed to go to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
I know, I know. It’s crazy. Just because you have a guy in D’Angelo Russell who had put together a terrific game — in the fourth quarter alone — with 27 points, coach Kenny Atkinson decided he had to draw up a play to get the ball to his supernova-hot All-Star.
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But before Russell had taken over the game, it had been RHJ that had sparked Brooklyn’s miracle run in the fourth quarter at Golden 1 Center.
Lost in the radioactive glow of Russell’s 27-point period — the most points by a player in a quarter this season in the NBA — was how Hollis-Jefferson got it started.
Hollis-Jefferson scored nine of Brooklyn’s first 11 points in the quarter, one in which he and Russell combined for 39 of the Nets’ 45 points as they stormed back from down 103-78 entering the final 12 minutes to an inexplicable 123-121 victory.
The final play, as mentioned earlier, was not supposed to go to Hollis-Jefferson. But Sacramento denied Russell off the inbounds pass and Joe Harris went to the second option, RHJ, who told YES Network’s Michael Grady in a postgame interview that he was supposed to get the ball to Russell on a handoff.
Per NBA.com, it wasn’t there … so the Nets improvised. As RHJ said:
"“He couldn’t get open, so I saw him looking at me, like throw it over the top, then he looked at the clock, he was like, ‘Go, go, go.’ I just put my fifth gear, sixth gear, locked in, looked at the rim and went to the basket.”"
The game-winning shot — the first for Hollis-Jefferson in 231 NBA games — was a signature move for RHJ. He put his head down, drove, took on the much-larger Marvin Bagley III and put up an off-balance layup over his head.
Hollis-Jefferson scored 12 of his 14 points in the final quarter Tuesday night, a game in which he entered with 4:53 left in the third period and Brooklyn down 93-69.
It’s been a difficult season for RHJ, who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season … unless the Nets opt not to extend a qualifying offer, in which case he will become unrestricted.
He was coming off a strong 2017-18 season in which he added a midrange jumper to his repertoire and averaged a career-high 13.9 points per game, improving his shooting to a career-best 47.2 percent in the process.
But he strained an adductor while attempting a dunk at Jeremy Lin‘s charity game in China in early August, an injury that lingered through training camp and cost him the entire preseason plus the regular-season opener.
When he returned, he was coming off the bench and was mostly ineffective.
He replaced Jared Dudley at the 4 spot in the starting unit on Nov. 25 and started the next 18 games before straining his left adductor early in a Dec. 29 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
That cost him another seven games — after he had missed a game in November with a sprained ankle — and he’s made just two starts since.
The Nets came back from the All-Star break and Hollis-Jefferson was removed from the rotation after a tough 1-for-6 outing in 15 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first game back.
He logged just 65 minutes over Brooklyn’s next 12 games, taking six DNP-CDs.
Against the Kings, he went 6-for-7 in his 17 minutes, adding five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.
In 56 games this season, RHJ is averaging 8.8 points and 5.0 rebounds in 20.9 minutes a night, shooting just 41.3 percent overall while hitting just 19.1 percent from 3-point range on less than an attempt a game. He’s also a career-worst 64.9 percent from the free throw line.
But as almost everyone on the Nets roster has done this season, Hollis-Jefferson answered the call when it came from Atkinson, without pouting or being a disruption in between.
Indeed, the reaction of his teammates — RHJ is the new record-holder for most enthusiastic, and wettest, postgame interview celebration after Tuesday — spoke to how well-regarded the four-year veteran is among his teammates.
He said it was about effort and energy.
"“Honestly, going into it, I was like, the only thing we need to do is change our energy. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to turn the ball over, but the energy was a little low. So I just knew when I came in there I had to impact the game with my energy.”"
And as for his moment at the end?
"“Man, it was amazing. My first game-winner. So it was definitely an unbelievable feeling. I kind of got a little teary-eyed over there. But this is the moments that you live for, you want to play the game for. It’s humbling, it’s awesome.“I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to enjoy this with.”"
In a season that has been packed full of magical moments for the Brooklyn Nets, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s unexpected game-winner in the most unexpected of victories may be the biggest of them all.