It’s easy to forget that — considering the new-look Nets roster and the extreme youth it consists of — Brooklyn’s head coach, Kenny Atkinson, is as new to his job title as his players are to the Nets organization.
The early returns on Atkinson, a Long Island native, as the head coach of this team are extremely positive. Brooklyn is 3-5 right now, with a West Coast road trip looming, but has been competitive in six of its eight games (and 13 of its 16 halves, if we’re being literally) and has quickly dissipated thoughts of uncertainly with the direction of the organization.
The effort is higher with this team, the energy is higher and the level of play is higher too. Somehow and some way, even with a point guard injury situation that borders on comical, Atkinson has gotten his group of young players and journeymen veterans to play as a cohesive unit in a way that has gotten notice from around the league for its toughness, fight and — according to the Nets’ PR department — grit.
Not everything has been perfect. The Nets are 5th-worst in the league in three-point shooting percentage (under 32 percent) and, on a per-possession basis, have committed the 5th-most turnovers. The big problems, which are unsurprising on a young team that’s working in a new rotation with a new coach, have been the poor outside shooting and heft of turnovers.
But for a team with a rotating door at the point and, frankly, not many great shooters, that those are the biggest problems is a very good sign. However, another problem reared its head in Wednesday’s 110-96 loss to the Knicks, and that’s Kenny Atkinson’s lack of head coaching experience.
The transition from slow, use-the-shot-clock team to fast, high-pace team has transformed the Nets from one of the more boring watches in the league to one of its most fun. Brooklyn is second in pace (right behind the Phoenix Suns) in the NBA, which is a measure of amount of possessions per 48 minutes. While this obviously improves offensive output by maximizing field goal attempts, especially ones from three-point range, it could devastate defensive efficiency.
On Wednesday, the first half demonstrated just how the Nets have been able to experience a modicum of success through the season’s first eight games. After catching the Knicks in a cold spell from the field in the first quarter, the Nets took a 29-19 lead. The second quarter, and some weak defense from the reserves, wasn’t as good, allowing New York to get within 55-50 at the break.
Then, as it always does, the third quarter followed. For the first six minutes after the the intermission, the Nets actually withstood a comeback push by the Knicks, and with a Justin Hamilton three at the 6:16 mark, Brooklyn went ahead 67-58. That shot came in the midst of a 4+ minute scoring drought for the Knicks, in which the Nets went on a 8-0 run.
Just over a minute later, Bojan Bogdanovic entered the game for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who locked down Carmelo Anthony for much of the first half and the beginning of the third quarter. 15 seconds later, Melo snapped the scoring skid by beating Bojan (and Hamilton) on the baseline for an easy layup. 30 seconds later, he drilled a long two right over Bojan. 19 more seconds, another made jumper.
In the span of 64 seconds, the Knicks cut a nine-point deficit to three points, all on the back of their best player. Is it a coincidence this happened while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Nets’ best wing defender, was on the bench? No. To be fair, Bojan did not play bad defense on Carmelo, but as one of the best pure shooters in the NBA, he doesn’t need much space to get going. Bogdanovic gave him that space, and he got going.
Melo actually scored the Knicks’ final 14 points of the third quarter, after which New York led 72-71. Atkinson chose to leave Bojan in for the duration of the frame, even as Melo systemically tore him to shreds, like he did to the Nets’ lead. That was enough to let the Knicks steal this game right from their crosstown foe, as New York’s bench opened the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run that sealed the game away.
Why did Atkinson not give Bojan a quick hook once Melo started making shots? Honestly, I don’t know. Hollis-Jefferson played very well all game and his being subbed out for Bogdanovic totally changed this game. If Atkinson recognizes the mismatch after the first three baskets (in a minute of play), maybe Rondae can lock down Melo and the Nets hold a slim lead heading to the fourth.
It’s early in the season for everyone, including the coaching staff. As Kenny Atkinson gets to know his team better, he’ll understand who to play in which situations. Bojan Bogdanovic is a replacement-level defender, maybe a drop higher against less-mobile players, but Rondae has the perfect frame and skillset to check someone like Carmelo Anthony.
The original substitution was defensible — remember, the Nets beat the Timberwolves the night before — but coaches have to make adjustments according to what they see. Caught up in the flow of the game, and his team blowing yet another third quarter lead, Atkinson simply missed the cause of that avalanche, and it cost the Nets. He’s still a rookie coach, too, and that was a big rookie mistake.