“Bring me that Rodi back,” is the message Rodions Kurucs said he received from Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson.
A year ago, Kurucs was a rookie revelation, emerging in December in sync with Brooklyn’s rise from an 8-18 start to a playoff berth, starting 46 games and earning an invite to the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte.
But the first two months of his sophomore season were a lost stretch for the 21-year-old, who fell out of the rotation early and was rarely seen for most of November and into December. When he played 18 minutes in Toronto on Dec. 14, it was more than he’d played in Brooklyn’s previous 17 games combined.
But he’s been a steady part of the rotation since just before Christmas now, and the Rodi resurgence took a big step forward Friday night with a season-high 19 points in the 117-113 win over Miami.
“I hope that’s a spark,’ said Atkinson. “Because the talent’s there. We saw last year. He decided to come out and defend tonight like he did last year. We gave him the assignment of Jimmy Butler. I think that excited him. But to see the shots go down, and he’s not hesitant, I think we all saw at the beginning of the year he was really struggling with that, really struggling with his confidence. Just seeing that thing go in and no hesitation I think it helped his whole game. Big reason we won tonight was his play.”
Kurucs made three 3-pointers in the game’s opening three minutes and went on to shoot 7-for-9 overall and 4-for-5 from 3-point range.
“When he shoots it and he shoots it with confidence, make or miss, he becomes so much more of a dynamic player because then people have to key on him a little bit and then he gets those backdoor cuts,” said Spencer Dinwiddie. “He gets those lobs. All those hustle plays; the pump fake, drive right to the right leg, two-hand dunk thing that he always does when he goes baseline. All that stuff opens up because he’s shooting with confidence. When he’s out there doing that, it just highlights everything else he does with the energy and picking up full-court and all that stuff. He’s playing like Rodi of last year. It’s a huge boost for us.”
Coming off the bench for the first seven games of the season, Kurucs struggled with his shooting and didn’t make much of an impact. Between Nov. 5 and Dec. 13, he played in three games with Brooklyn, but eight with the Long Island Nets in the G League.
“I just enjoyed it,” said Kurucs. “I just went there, took all the shots when I could. Had fun with the guys. We have a great group of guys there. I just enjoyed it. Just played my game there. And the coaches also trusted me 100 percent. They said just take your shots, play your game, relax. Make mistakes. That’s why you’re here, and that’s what I did.”
After the 18-minute outing against Toronto, Kurucs played just five minutes with one DNP in Brooklyn’s next three games. But he’s been a steady part of the rotation since Dec. 21. And when Atkinson looked for a lineup tweak going into Tuesday’s game against Oklahoma City, Kurucs made his first start of the season, with Garrett Temple sliding into a reserve role.
In start No. 2, Kurucs looked even more like the Rodi Atkinson was looking for.
“Maybe it is a turning point,” said Kurucs. “Yeah, maybe I’ll play more, play better. I’m sure Kenny liked my game today and he liked my physicality, the way I played. I feel like I’ll just get in my rhythm more and more and play my game better.”
DINWIDDIE DISHES CAREER HIGH
Spencer Dinwiddie racked up a career-high 14 assists in Friday night’s win over Miami. The point guard had carried much of the Brooklyn offense since Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert went down in mid-November, but was in a 36-percent shooting funk over Brooklyn’s last seven games.
Against Miami, Dinwiddie shot 10-for-19 for 26 points.
“Your quarterback, your guy that’s running the team, you have a lot of discussions,” said Kenny Atkinson. “I think with Spencer he’s trying to find that perfect balance with getting his teammates involved but still being aggressive. He’s really trying to find that. At the end of the day, I’d rather him be aggressive. I’ve really come to that conclusion. I had a good talk with him the other day. We need him to be aggressive. I think that’s helped us keep afloat and keep our head above the water when we were playing really well. We need him. It’s just that clear. I can live with a couple bad shots. I think he’s continuing to improve in that area and tonight was a good example of him balancing, doing a better balancing act.”
CARIS CONNECTS FOR BIG SHOTS
The Nets were in trouble late against Miami on Friday, down nine with under five minutes to go after going into the fourth quarter tied. Then Spencer Dinwiddie hit a big 3-pointers, and 30 seconds later, Caris LeVert followed. Just like that, it was a one-possession game with 3:30 to go.
With the Nets down 111-109 and just over a minute to go, LeVert connected again with a step-back three that gave the Nets the lead for good.
“I love those moments,” said LeVert. “I love playing in those moments. When coach put me back in, I relish those moments. It wasn’t just me. Everybody made huge plays. Joe with that rebound and the timeout, that was a huge play. And we had huge defensive stops. The zone really worked late in the game. It was a team effort.”
HARRIS IN THE CLUTCH
Joe Harris had seven rebounds on Friday against Miami, and it felt like every one of them were on the offensive boards. That’s how big the impact was from the two he did grab.
The first came with just under four minutes to go and led to a Caris LeVert 3-pointer as part of an 8-0 run that brought the Nets within a point. After LeVert had put the Nets ahead 112-111 and the Nets got a stop at the other end, Taurean Prince missed a 3-pointer and Harris won the battle for the board, leading to a Brooklyn timeout and possession. Harris then dished to a cutting Prince for a layuup and 114-111 lead with 25.9 seconds remaining.
Harris then made 3-of-4 free throws in the final 10 seconds to close the game out.
“He led by his actions,” said Kenny Atkinson. “I thought there were some 50-50 balls, some rebounds, he was just flying in there. Joe’s a football player. You can put the pads on him. He’s a tough dude. Leads by example. But yeah, he’s a big part of that physicality. But it would be unfair to just single him out. I thought collectively we were a very aggressive team tonight.”
Harris had five rebounds total in the fourth quarter, including the defensive rebound to close out a Miami possession immediately before LeVert’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:09 to go.
“That’s Joe,” said Atkinson. “Whatever it takes to help the team when he doesn’t, I don’t think he even knows how many shots he has. He’s an incredible teammate. Humility and toughness. If you have a picture of the ideal teammate and ideal guy to coach, he’s up on that wall. His picture’s in the dictionary. A tough dude and it rubs off on his teammates that have a lot of respect for him.”
ABOUT THE HAWKS
This is the second meeting of the season between the Nets and Hawks after a 122-112 win in Brooklyn on Dec. 21. Atlanta is 8-31 and in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Second-year guard Trae Young had 47 points against the Nets the first time around, and he’s fourth in the NBA in scoring with 28.9 points per game, as well as fourth in assists with 8.4 per game.
Even with Young’s scoring, the Hawks are 29th in the league in offensive rating (103.6), in addition to 27th in defensive rating (112.9), and last in net rating (-9.4).