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Changing course: how Kenny Atkinson turned Brook Lopez into a three-point threat

NBA: Miami Heat at Brooklyn Nets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets dig the long ball.

We knew this coming into the season, that a big part of Kenny Atkinson’s offensive game plan would be centered around the open three-pointer.

In four years before his starring role in this season’s Brooklyn rebuild, Atkinson was a top assistant with the Atlanta Hawks, who are two years removed from a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Prior to Atkinson joining the staff, the Hawks ranked 15th, 23rd and 10th in three-point attempts from 2009-10, through 2011-12. In his four-year tenure, the Hawks were always a top-7 NBA team from three. They shot the fifth most per game in 2012-13, second the following year, and seventh in each of the last two before he left for Brooklyn.

During those four years, the Hawks hoisted up 8,495 threes’ in total, hitting 36.6 percent ... and a big part of the Hawks’ three-point barrage became Al Horford.

Key word: became.

Horford entered the league in 2007, and over his first five seasons, he attempted 12 three-pointers. Over the next two seasons, Atkinson, who had been lobbying for Horford to stretch the floor, put up 17 threes’, which then grew exponentially to 36 attempts in 2014-15, and 256 (!!) last year, hitting 34 percent.

Currently, Horford is on pace to pass this mark next month in Boston despite missing several games earlier this season, as he attempts a career best 4.3 long balls per contest, significantly more than the 3.5 last year and a combined 0.1 in the seven years prior.

“I used to fight; ‘here he is, a good mid-range shooter,’ and these guys are big and strong,” said Atkinson said of Horford, who played back-to-back All Star Games in 2015 and 2016 and originally doing so in 2009 and 2010. “(I used to wonder) as big and strong as they are why can’t they step out three more feet?”

Enter Brook Lopez.

We’ve seen the 7-footer display and astute touch from mid-range since the Nets made him a top-10 pick in 2008. Many wondered aloud: ‘why can’t he just step back and shoot some three’s?’

Evidently, so did his new coach. Atkinson has helped to dramatically transform the 28-year-old’s game as a dominant offensive center. Usually at 28 and eight years in, you are who you are.

We saw glimpses, 24 three-point attempts in the two seasons preceding this reconstruction after only seven during six years. But still, in his first eight years, he shot only 31, making only three. This season, Lopez has put up well over 300 three’s already, hitting over 100 at a respectable 35 per cent.

Key word: respectable.

“For us it gives us more space to play,” said Atkinson, whose been preaching spacing since taking this job. “I think we’re tops in the league in drives to the rim – (we’re trying to) open up our lanes so we can get to the rim. It helps us with points in the paint. (Brook has) got a beautiful shot, you watch him shoot, it’s effortless.”

You have to account for it, otherwise, you end up like the Knicks, who graciously allowed an 11-win team to net 120 points in a winning effort. In victory, the Nets drilled 19-of-38 from deep, 50 percent. Lopez, who led the team with 25 points, banged in 6-of-6 from deep to start before cooling off and finishing 6-of-9.

“I don’t think he’s had one three-point shot blocked, you’re not going to block his shot,” said teammate Jeremy Lin (who we’ll get to in a second). “The thing about Brook is that he’s so capable in so many different ways, that’s the top of the list in terms of learning how to play with my teammates – how do I get him involved where there’s a nice balance of three-pointers, getting to the rim, on the block, and soft rolls too where you hit him in the pocket and he can make plays around the free throw line because he’s versatile.”

“I think we just continue to improve at moving and sharing the ball more and more throughout the season; we’ve gotten better in that regard,” added Lopez on shooting. “We continue to trust one another. “I’m very comfortable and I think it just has to do with trusting the staff, my teammates, they’re confident with me shooting.”

And as he told Fred Kerber...

“It’s just something I’ve always been confident in and been able to do. It’s a matter of this year the coaching staff and Kenny reiterating that they have the confidence in me to shoot the 3 in games and if I’m open to take it,” Lopez said. “Kenny came to me and told me, ‘This is part of our offense, this is what we want to do.’

Ball movement has been seriously elevated by it all and of course Lin’s return after the All-Star Break was a big help.

For the season, Nets shoot 32 threes per game, fourth most in the league, but only hit 34%, which is in the bottom half of the NBA. Since Lin’s return, the Nets are much more accurate, in the top-10 in three-point percentage, all while continuing to jack up as many three’s as Golden State ... who it should be noted is just over 30 percent since the break. For what it’s worth, the Nets are at around 38 percent during the same time frame, playing into Atkinson’s vision, which we’re starting to see more of, little by little.

“I think Jeremy helps a lot with his (dribble) penetration,” said Atkinson. “At the end of the day you need a pick-and-roll to break down a guy one on one to get the defense to suck in to shoot, so Jeremy helps a lot with that.”

For Atkinson and the team, it’s not exclusively focusing on a volume of three-point attempts as much as it’s about offensive balance. The Hawks progressively integrated more and more downtown offense to add a dimension from beyond the arc, which was a big part of their success that led them to be referred to as ‘Spurs-East’ or ‘Spurs-Lite.’

Despite sporting the league’s worst record, the Nets are actually a top-15 scoring team, having threatened better squads all year long. The problem is that inability to finish ... although they’ve done that on multiple occasions after Lin’s return.

This may be year one of the 3-to-5 rebuild, but little by little, it’s beginning to take shape. Dig the long ball.