D'Angelo Russell, Kenny Atkinson
AP Photo

In the chess match between Kenny Atkinson and Brett Brown, the Brooklyn Nets’ head coach was always one step ahead.

Danny Small

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson put on a masterful performance in his playoff debut on Saturday. Despite the excess of talent on the other side, Atkinson was able to devise the perfect game plan to baffle Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown.

Brooklyn’s convincing Game One victory showcased Atkinson’s ability to prepare, adjust, but most of all, trust his players. The Brooklyn backcourt terrorized Philly in space all game. The Nets defended the Sixers about as well as anyone could have hoped. They always seemed to have the right counter and that’s due in large part to Atkinson.

The Perfect Scheme

Schematically, Atkinson kept things simple, but it was the perfect way to exploit the Sixers. On offense, Brooklyn did what they’ve done all year. They spaced the floor and hunted mismatches for D’Angelo Russell (26 points), Caris LeVert (23), and Spencer Dinwiddie (18). Vance Walberg—the father of the dribble drive motion offense—would have been proud of how the Nets exploited the gaps in the defense and attacked the rim.

This strategy was key in grinding down the hobbled Joel Embiid as the game progressed. Perhaps more importantly, Brooklyn’s use of spacing allowed for the Nets to find JJ Redick and victimize him in 1-on-1 situations. The veteran shooting guard was a complete liability on defense. He fouled out in 22 minutes.

Perhaps the Sixers could have lived with Redick’s defensive woes had he been effective on the offensive end. Once again, Atkinson pushed the right buttons to make Redick a non-factor in Philly’s offense.

Brooklyn Nets

The Sixers run more dribble handoffs than any other team in the NBA per NBA.com. Consequently, Redick and Embiid are one of the most potent DHO combinations in the league. But the scrappy Nets upped their physicality and made every touch for Redick difficult.

Defenders stuck to Redick like glue and prevented many DHOs from occurring as scripted. Philly only managed to run two DHOs and failed to score a single point off of the action.

Of course, the overplay led to some solid opportunities for Embiid to break down his man and attack the basket. When the outspoken center had good shots at the rim, the Nets were happy to send him to the line rather than give up the easy bucket.

Although Embiid started out hot, the physicality and pace caught up to him. The big man shot 9-for-11 from the free throw line in the first half, but only hit 3 of his 7 attempts in the second half.

Although Embiid and Redick were two focal points of Brooklyn’s game plan, they did an excellent job shutting down Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris as well. As expected, the Nets sagged off of Simmons and dared him to shoot. On the flip side, the Nets always kept track of where Harris was and made sure to limit his airspace and prevent open looks. He played a game-high 40 minutes but remained an afterthought for the majority of his time on the floor.

Credit to Atkinson and Brooklyn for exploiting Philly’s weaknesses while playing to their own strengths. The game plan was generally what we expected to see, but that shouldn’t diminish the fact that it was exactly what Brooklyn needed to steal a crucial win on the road.

D'Angelo Russell
Danny Small, ESNY Graphic

Trusting His Guy

Putting together a comprehensive game plan is the technical aspect of the job, but there’s more to coaching than scouting and drawing up plays. In other words, the best coaches have a feel for their players and can figure things out on the fly. In this regard, Atkinson knew exactly what buttons to push.

Russell was a burden on the offense in the first half, shooting 2-for-11 on a slew of shots that would make any coach pull his hair out. Instead of ripping into Russell for his poor shot selection, Atkinson took a different approach with his star player.

“I didn’t yell at him for all his bad shots in the first half. I think that was key,” Atkinson joked in his postgame press conference. “Seriously, I said this before, I think we have this relationship now that we—and the trust where he can have a bad half or three quarters in the game and he’s good enough to get it going again.”

He responded with 19 points in the second half on 8-for-14 shooting. Despite the absence of any playoff experience, Atkinson trusts Russell in any spot and it paid off on Saturday.

In Defense of Brett Brown

There’s no doubt about it, Atkinson outmaneuvered Brown at nearly every turn on Saturday. In the chess game between the two, Atkinson remained one step ahead. But let’s be fair to Brown for a minute.

Despite scoring 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, Joel Embiid was off his game. He wore down as the game progressed and Brown had to resort to playing him in five-minute spurts to keep him fresh. As a result, he finished the night 5-for-15 from the floor and 12-for-18 from the free throw line. It’s difficult to lay the blame at Brown’s doorstep when his best player is battling through injury.

Moreover, Philly’s front office made trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris with the intent of frontloading the team with talent. Unfortunately, that left Brown with an inadequate bench and a team without much chemistry together.

Brown isn’t in the perfect situation. Still, the onus is on him to figure out a way to bounce back and even the series on Sunday. As it stands, Atkinson is running circles around Brown. But the playoffs are all about adjustments and counters. This series is a long way from finished.


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