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Analyzing Kenny Atkinson’s box-and-one adjustment that lifted Brooklyn

Brooklyn Nets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Kemba Walker hit his second straight three-pointer and gave the Hornets an eight-point lead with three minutes left Wednesday night at Barclays Center. Walker had just capped off his own 12-2 run, both daggers right in the face of Jared Dudley.

It was cold-blooded and the game looked lost for Brooklyn. They hedged on pick-and-rolls and tried to stop Walker, but he became unguardable in the second half ... especially when he saw a mismatch against a slower player like Dudley.

He wasn’t doing bad against other player, either. He was going by everybody in one-on-one situations. That’s when Kenny made one of his most unorthodox adjustments: A box-and-one zone focused on Walker. A box-and-one? The zone you played in seventh grade?

“It was a box-and-one, yeah. It threw Kemba’s rhythm off, where they started picking on me with Malik Monk, so Coach went to zone where he couldn’t pick on me,” Jared Dudley told NetsDaily after the game. “So, they were still scoring but it came where Kemba had to make one or two passes. Really, it took the ball out of Kemba’s hands and once he gave it up it was basically a box-and-one. Deny him and make someone else beat us.”

... And when was that made?

“Kenny made the adjustment late in the fourth after he hit two threes against me.”

So why a box and one and why does it contradict Atkinson’s philosophy?

He’d prefer teams shoot mid-range jumpers versus open threes. By playing a zone, you’re vulnerable to allowing three’s. Players don’t man up; instead they cover their area of the floor, which makes it difficult to cover if teams move the ball well enough.

The Nets used a box-and-one, but they were a little more aggressive. They used Rodions Kurucs and Spencer Dinwiddie to face-guard Walker the second he crossed half court. They gave a different look in terms of how assertive they were in blitzing and double teaming ... while at the same time, trying to stay somewhat true to the zone.

The point: Get the ball out of Kemba Walker’s hands.

Watch Walker at the top of the screen. This is more of a blitz than anything, but the concept of the box-and-one is still the same. You’re keying in on one guy and in this instance, it’s Walker. Dinwiddie shows at half court, but the length and speed of Kurucs adds a different dynamic to the double team and forces Walker to pass just as he passes half court. Presence alone is sometimes enough to get the job done.

It takes a lot for Kenny Atkinson to switch into a zone, as noted. Deeper teams would make the Nets pay if Brooklyn gave them this much space. The Hornets showed their vulnerability —a lack of depth— when Walker is taken out of the game.

This play is a little more extreme than the first. Kurucs storms in like a tiger (his favorite animal) and shows the blitz before Walker even gets to the Brooklyn logo. This forces Jeremy Lamb and then Malik Monk to make a play.

Kemba is hardly involved.

It messed him up and eventually resulted in a loss for the Hornets in an important game. Monk had a chance to win it for Charlotte, but instead dropped the ball — literally — as Joe Harris stole it and neatly laid it up with over a second remaining.

Walker was flabbergasted after the game.

“It was crazy. The way they guarded me, I don’t know if anyone else in this league is getting guarded like they guarded me. It was like a box-and-one,” said Walker after the game. “I haven’t seen that since I was in college. It was crazy. I guess that’s what teams are going to do. I have to trust in my teammates to make plays.”

The intriguing part about in-game adjustments is that you get to see the creativity from coaches and players; a peak into their mindset, if you will. Change is an answer to circumstance and in their shoes down eight with three minutes left, the coaching staff had nothing to lose.

And it was on-the-fly. There was no preparation, no premeditated plan such as a box-and-one zone, should a player go off the way Walker was. The Nets tried something new and it worked, because nothing else defensively was working.

“No we didn’t [plan it],” said Dinwiddie. “We started to hedge the pick-and-roll a little bit, Kemba would stop behind the hedge, hit a couple three’s and we just decided to be flexible, switch up our defense completely. It’s something we didn’t really talk about but it was effective for us and froze them a little bit and allowed us to get just enough stops to be able to win.”

The Nets won and the Bronx native scored only three points on three shot attempts the rest of the way. He was hardly involved in the overtimes and that’s exactly what Atkinson wanted to achieve. It was different, but it worked.

There are little things worth noting with a unique, yet crucial moment like this one. A month ago — maybe even a few weeks ago, Atkinson might not make the tweak. Take the loss to the Thunder for example.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare Paul George and Kemba Walker or the Thunder to the Hornets, but it was still the same idea. Like Walker, George was going off in the fourth. The Nets made zero adjustments and he ended up scoring 25 points in the fourth including the game-winning shot. In some ways, it was the worst loss of the season.

The Nets probably don’t get this win if they don’t make this change either. Strategy changes, Dinwiddie hits a three and suddenly it’s a ball game. Persistence is perhaps both Atkinson and the Nets’ best trait. The best part is that Atkinson is blossoming with his young guys.

As Dudley said after the game, “Credit Coach Kenny.”