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When your ‘third star’ comes off the bench

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Golden State Warriors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

When Manu Ginobili would come off the bench in San Antonio, Spurs fans would chant “Ma ... nooo!” He was undeniably the Spurs’ third star behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, the trio that won more games than any other in NBA history — 575 regular season games and 126 postseason games together. That included four NBA titles, two of them with Sean Marks. So the Nets GM knows that third stars don’t have to start.

Steve Nash has said he’d like to see Caris LeVert in that Ginobili role, a player who can lead the second unit and provide a spark whether on the court with Kyrie Irving or Tyler Johnson.

So far, the experiment has one game to show for it. But the result, a blowout win over Golden State, holds promise. As Greg Logan writes Thursday...

While Irving scored 26 points and Durant added 22 with the starters, LeVert was third-leading scorer with 20 points. All three played 25 minutes, and LeVert also had nine rebounds and a team-high five assists and was plus-18 with a bench unit that scored 54 points. He entered with a 15-point first-quarter lead and pushed it to 21, and when he entered in the third period, the lead expanded to 35 on a LeVert three-pointer and reached 38 in the fourth quarter while he was playing.

When Nash originally proposed the sixth man role for LeVert —in his first press conference— some fans scratched their heads. LeVert was a starter. After all in the week before COVID-19 ended the season in March, LeVert had put up his first 50-point game and his first triple double.

Then in the Orlando “bubble,” the 26-year-old averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists while leading the Nets to a 5-3 record and being named to the all-Bubble second team. But the new configuration allows the Nets to start Spencer Dinwiddie who in turn takes pressure off Irving to do what he does best, score.

As one might expect, LeVert has embraced the role and understands just how big his role could be.

“For sure. I try to take on the challenge and lead the second unit,” he said post-game Tuesday. “If we’re up five, trying to push that lead to 10 or push it to 15, make our mark on the defensive end. In the second group, we all know we can play, we all know we can impose our will on the game just like the first group can. So, we try to give energy where it’s needed, and I think we did that.”

The Nets bench is, in fact, filled with players who’ve proved they can score in bunches. In addition to LeVert’s 25/7/5 in the “bubble,” Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Jarrett Allen averaged 15, and Tyler Johnson 12. The group’s character should permit them to carry the load off the bench, be unselfish, become fan favorites.

And maybe, LeVert will follow Ginobili in winning Sixth Man of the Year.