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Rodions Kurucs is Brooklyn’s tough kid on the block

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During Rodions Kurucs’ first press conference with the Nets, he was asked about fellow Latvian Kristaps Porzingis. “I met him once before he got drafted. After that, we didn’t meet.”

Then, he was asked if he looked forward to playing against him.

“Sure, and beat his ass,” Kurucs said.

That was the day we knew Rodions Kurucs was a bad you-know-what.

“His toughness, his lack of fear, is much higher than I thought. His toughness is impressive... he’s not afraid of anybody,” Kenny Atkinson said before the Pistons game.

Kurucs, then 20 and maybe 200 pounds, was taken with the 40th pick in the second round of this past year’s NBA Draft. Hardly anybody knew who this kid was, and it goes way beyond just being a man of mystery.

Kurucs was essentially sabotaged by his former club in Barcelona for three years. They hardly played him because the club became fed up with losing players to the NBA and as result, his draft stock plummeted mightily.

Nobody knew who he was.

He participated in three EuroLeague games and six ACB games (all in 2017-2018) in his three-year stint. He played 43 minutes in the top-flight Spanish league. Compare that to Luka Doncic, who played 900 minutes. Real Madrid knew they were going to lose Luka, but played him. F.C Barcelona didn’t even care. He became a token in Barca’s dispute with the NBA.

“Barcelona basketball is a section of F.C. Barcelona, but not a section of the NBA,” said his coach.

It didn’t end after the draft or even after he started 30 games. Literally, nobody seemed to know who he is. Not even Cavaliers head coach Larry Drew.

And on Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press began its game story this way: “Blake Griffin was outscored by a rookie unknown to the casual NBA fan.”

Whatever.

Kurucs came in hungry and he’s only getting hungrier. He’s a humble guy off the court, but he doesn’t take any nonsense from anybody. That’s right up “Brooklyn Grit Alley” — and suddenly he’s become a secret weapon in the Brooklyn team arsenal.

“I’m just enjoying playing basketball. Finally, after three years not playing, I’m enjoying playing basketball,” Kurucs told Michael Grady after scoring 15 points in an early December game.

Head coach Kenny Atkinson inserted him into the starting lineup and the Nets are winning basketball games in large part due to his contributions, owning a 22-11 record when he starts.

He brings a certain level of toughness that correlates extremely well with his athleticism and awareness on both ends of the floor. It also helps that he’s shooting better than 34 percent from three this season ... and 61.1 percent in the four games he’s started this month.

“I don’t know what neighborhood he grew up in in Latvia, but that’s a tough neighborhood,” Atkinson said Saturday night after a win against the Hawks. “That’s a tough dude.”

Two days later, the Nets played the biggest game of the season against the star-studded front court with Rodi getting the assignment on All-Star forward, Blake Griffin. Griffin is averaging 25 points and eight rebounds while leading the Pistons on an absolute surge, entering Brooklyn having won 12 of 14.

He’s the centerpiece of their offense and the Pistons game plan revolves around him.

Kurucs was having none of it.

He started the night with an alley-oop pass from D’Angelo Russell. He finished the night with 16 points and six rebounds, but he completely dominated Griffin and the Pistons on the defensive end, coming up with three steals leading to four fast break dunks. He forced Griffin to turn the ball over four times and miss nine of his 10 shots on the night.

“My main focus is on defense and offense just comes with it,” said Kurucs. “It’s hard because Griffin is bigger than me. … But I like contact, when someone hits me. I’m skinny, but I like to hit back.”

He was playing physical, sneaky and got the sell-out crowd on its feet with monstrous dunk after monstrous dunk.

It was just getting started here…

Then, three minutes later, he put home the first half dagger — the end of of a 16-7 extended run.

“Great job,” D’Angelo Russell said of Kurucs post-game. “He got the crowd involved and got us following his lead with his creativity and energy.”

He is indeed a huge part of the Nets’ defensive game plan. The Nets have gotten slaughtered by opposing bigs this season. Rodi putting up a fight would’ve been good enough but on Monday, he went above and beyond, and led the way in the team’s best game.

“He’s huge for us. He really attacked Blake Griffin and that’s what we needed from him.” said Caris LeVert after the game.” We knew they were coming off a back-to-back, we wanted to run and Rodi provided a great spark for us… I think his confidence is on another level lately.”

And they rewarded him for it with the unofficial player of the game shower.

The Nets surrendered a mere 75 points on the night, the fewest they’ve allowed since December of 2014. They haven’t been a good defensive team, but Kurucs has changed the dynamic. The steals and physicality led to a frustrating night for Griffin, who picked up a technical foul after one tough play with Kurucs.

Nets fans cheered as they sensed Kurucs getting in his head.

“I just didn’t like what happened. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I didn’t like what happened,” said Griffin after the game. “I think the refs are there to take that stuff out. That tech, I wanted to get that one.”

It isn’t a common trait for European players to come in and impact a game in the physical aspect, let alone some kid with skinny arms and thin frame. Indeed, the biggest issue with players coming over from Europe to the NBA is the physical, but Kurucs admits it’s something he takes pride in. It’s his game.

“I just like to fight, I like to play hard. That’s my game, Kurucs said.”

Perhaps we’ll just keep it simple and go with what Spencer Dinwiddie said after the Hawks game.

“Rodi ain’t no punk.”

No, he ain’t.