By Steve Lichtenstein
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Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made a rare visit to Barclays Center on Tuesday night to watch his club face the Clippers.
Allegedly an uber-competitive sort, Prokhorov probably wasn’t too pleased with the southern direction the Nets have been heading, no matter how much general manager Sean Marks prepped him in advance of the season.
Losers of seven straight — all but one by lopsided margins — and without the services of starting point guard Jeremy Lin for a 12th consecutive game, the Nets were not expected to give the elite Clippers much of a fight, even with All-Star forward Blake Griffin on a rest day.
All Marks likely wanted anyway was something tangible to show Prokhorov that there is a plan in place, that players were being developed despite the negative outcomes.
By the end of Brooklyn’s wild 127-122 double-overtime upset victory, Marks could point to guard Sean Kilpatrick and tell Prokhorov, “That’s my guy.”
The 26-year-old Kilpatrick almost single-handedly willed Brooklyn back from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit, scoring 31 of his 38 points in the final frame and two overtimes. He also grabbed 14 rebounds and handed out a pair of huge assists late in the game.
It took Kilpatrick 34 field goal attempts — some of which could be filed in the poor shot selection folder — but almost every time the Nets needed a big play, he delivered.
“We found the hot hand, and (Kilpatrick) had it going,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. “We just put him in the pick-and-roll. He’s an emotional competitor.”
The spurt came out of the blue, as Kilpatrick was having a miserable night through three quarters, misfiring on 11 of his 14 field goal attempts.
“I remember looking down at (Atkinson), and I had my hands on my knees, and he looked at me and was like, ‘You’ve got a whole game left. Get up,’” Kilpatrick said. “I think that’s something that is a huge confidence booster. I ended up getting into a zone. I think at the end of the day, when you have that attack mentality, it really pays off.”
Kilpatrick has come a long way to get to play the role of crunch-time assassin on the biggest stages. Undrafted coming out of Cincinnati after his senior season in 2014, the Yonkers native bounced around several NBA organizations before landing in the D-League a year ago.
Marks’ first move after he succeeded Billy King in February was to buy out the contract of enigmatic center Andrea Bargnani so he could sign Kilpatrick to a 10-day deal. After Marks witnessed two impressive 10-day stints, he inked Kilpatrick for the remainder of the season plus the next two years — at the veteran’s minimum salary.
Kilpatrick was lauded by both Marks and Atkinson for his summer workout intensity and came into this season ready to show he can be a legitimate NBA rotation player. He was one of the league’s leading scorers off the bench until Lin went down. Atkinson then tried playing Kilpatrick out of position at point guard, which exposed his relatively poor ballhandling, distributing and perimeter defending skills.
Fortunately, a less heralded Marks acquisition — rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead — has been progressing at light speed, particularly on the defensive end, which has enabled Kilpatrick to go back to focusing more on attacking the basket.
Whitehead, a 21-year-old from Seton Hall, was drafted by Utah in the second round (42nd overall) in June and immediately sold to Brooklyn. It’s taken a few weeks for Whitehead to gain Atkinson’s trust, but the 46 minutes he played Tuesday, mostly opposite superstar point guard Chris Paul, suggest that Atkinson has finally settled his internal debate.
Sure, Paul got his numbers (26 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds), but he only shot 11-of-26 from the floor (including 3-of-5 when Atkinson sat Whitehead in the first half, inexplicably allowing Randy Foye to guard Paul) and committed four turnovers.
Whitehead played virtually the entire fourth quarter and both overtimes, hanging with Paul as best he could through myriad Clipper screens. He picked up his fifth foul late in the first overtime, yet held Paul to 2-of-6 shooting in the final five minutes without further incident.
“I know CP3 is real crafty, so I really just tried to stay even-keeled. Don’t be too aggressive and don’t be too laid back. Just keep it at a simple pace,” Whitehead said. “I tried to go over (screens) as much as possible because he is a great shooter.”
Nets center Brook Lopez, who added 27 points while logging a season-high 43 minutes, was impressed by both young players.
“I have tremendous confidence in SK,” Lopez said. “That’s the kind of scorer he is. When he gets going, there’s not many people who can stop him. He was being aggressive, attacking the basket and finding the right guys when he had to.”
As to Whitehead, Lopez said: “The most important part about defense is just communicating, and he was doing that. He was active, he was talkative, and we had a nice little dialogue out there during our pick-and-rolls.”
For Marks, it’s important that the Nets show their fans, their owner and the rest of the league signs of some progress this season even if winning games isn’t a priority. It’s one thing to “change the culture” and invest in support staff and a D-League affiliate, but this is a player-driven league.
Without having their own first-round draft pick until 2019, the Nets have to find other ways to get good players. The development of guys such as Kilpatrick and Whitehead is a worthy start, one that can allay any concerns Prokhorov may have about another desultory season.
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