Brooklyn Nets' Rodions Kurucs Aggressive and Impressive
Rookie shows familiar hustle in helping Nets come back against Cleveland
There's no slowdown in Rodions Kurucs' game right now.
The rookie is full-speed, straight-ahead, coming right at you, and it's the kind of thing that Kenny Atkinson was looking for at halftime against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night. The Brooklyn Nets were down six and Atkinson and his staff started talking about Kurucs giving them a boost.
Things got worse before they got better. The Nets went down 13 and got back to within eight before Kurucs got the call in the final minutes of the third quarter. He ended up playing the final 14 minutes as the Nets came back to tie the game before the Cavs pulled out the 99-97 win.
"He just plays hard," said Atkinson after the game. "He's got extreme energy and I thought he turned the game for us and got us back in and his energy was contagious. Listen, that's what he's done most of the time he gets in there, so it's good news for the Nets. Disappointing loss, but to have a young player contribute like that at this level, this early, is good news."
It was a familiar sight, the rangy 6-foot-9 forward somehow getting in the middle of everything. It's what he's done most of the time he's gotten an opportunity this season. And opportunity came surprisingly early, with injuries to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll and Treveon Graham leaving the Nets short at the 4 spot.
So there was Kurucs scoring 11 points with five rebounds in Brookyn's home opener back in October and going for 12 and 6 the next night in Indiana. When the Nets went west for four games in November, they brought Kurucs along rather than leaving him back to play in the G League for Long Island.
But until he played in Washington last Saturday, Kurucs hadn't appeared for Brooklyn since playing 21 minutes on Nov. 16. He's played in four of Long Island's 10 games.
"I think he can help us, but he needs to play big minutes," said Atkinson a week ago. "In Barcelona, he did not play a lot, so I think he needs minutes. Where we are, we’re erring on the side of he’s got to go get minutes with Long Island. But the head coach also looks at the bench sometimes, like, ‘Where’s Rodi?’ So we’ve got to figure that out."
The head coach was rewarded when he called for Kurucs on Monday night with the Nets trailing 78-70. Within 90 seconds, Kurucs had scored off a Shabazz Napier feed while cutting to the rim, grabbed a defensive board at the other end then charged the length of the court for a layup to make it a four-point game at the end of the third quarter. When DeMarre Carroll opened the fourth quarter with a layup, the Nets were within two.
“I just knew that I had to play hard and give energy to the guys because I saw the energy level was low," said Kurucs after practice Tuesday. "I just went out there and tried to play tough, go for rebounds, hit first on the rebounds, try to box out, defend. That’s what coach wants from me.”
The Nets fell back down by 11 before Kurucs attacked the rim for a layup. That was the start of a 9-2 run in which Kurucs scored six points. He followed up a rebound basket with another inside score off a pass from D'Angelo Russell, bringing Brooklyn within 93-89 with just over three minutes to go.
With the Nets down 97-93, Kurucs came up with a steal, and when he missed the finish on the other end, Russell put back the rebound. With 18.9 seconds to go, another Kurucs rebound basket tied the game at 97 with 18.9 seconds remaining before Cleveland's Alec Burks won it on a drive in the final seconds.
“Yesterday was a perfect example of where the team’s energy was low, both teams, the atmosphere, and you need to mix in a spark," said Joe Harris. "Rodi has been that spark for us all year. He comes in and if anything, he’s going to play hard. He made some huge plays for us last night, really just outworking guys. That’s kind of how he plays and what he brings to the team. He didn’t play a minute in the first half. He just stayed ready, came in there and provided us with the lift that we needed. He damn near won the game for us.”
With his knack for getting in the middle of plays and making things happen, Kurucs' relentless style is usually the first thing mentioned. But he's also pointing that aggressiveness in the right direction.
"He comes from a basketball family," said Atkinson. "His background is incredible when you really look at it. I still think, he's erring on the side of being super aggressive, which we need right now. But I do think he understands the game. I think he has a good IQ. Right now, he's erring on the side of aggression."
Kurucs finished with 12 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes, shooting 6-for-10. In his ninth NBA game, the 20-year-old second-round pick is appreciating every minute he gets.
"It felt great actually, because that was a dream for a little kid who comes from Latvia, from a little town," said Kurucs. "It would be cool if we would win, I would enjoy it more, but it felt great. I enjoyed it."