As Kyrie Irving's return looms, Spencer Dinwiddie's role a question mark for Nets

NEW YORK -- Spencer Dinwiddie squished his right fist into his left, mashing out his frustration. Dinwiddie's layup that would have put the Nets up by one in the final minute of a close game with the Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon had rolled off the side of the rim.

In the absence of the Nets' most decorated players --Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant-- Dinwiddie has emerged as Brooklyn's best player. Coach Kenny Atkinson has called Dinwiddie Brooklyn's "difference-maker." And being that difference-maker occasionally means when it matters the most, the shots don't fall.

With 29 seconds left in Sunday's game, the Nets hung on to a one-point lead. But then Dinwiddie fouled Jimmy Butler, who made a pair of free throws. Then Dinwiddie missed the layup. His 28-foot 3-pointer didn't fall and the Heat escaped with a 109-106 win.

"We live and die with him making plays down the stretch," Joe Harris said of Dinwiddie. "I thought he got some really good looks. He did everything you could ask from him ... he just ended the game on a couple tough contested ones and the ball didn't bounce his way."

Meanwhile, Irving is inching toward returning to the court after missing the past nine games with a right shoulder impingement. Atkinson said Irving has begun to do some on-court work, but has yet to do anything with contact.

The Nets have gone 6-3 without their All-Star point guard and are 10-10 overall.

Dinwiddie's offensive production has swelled from averaging 17 points per game with Irving playing, to 25 points without him.

If some combination of Dinwiddie, Durant, Irving and Caris LeVert can stay healthy, Harris said the Nets will have a "three-headed monster."

"We have no idea what our ceiling is because we are not even close to healthy," Dinwiddie said. "We really have no idea how good we could be. It is encouraging to know that our floor is continuing to rise."

At the beginning of the season when Irving was healthy, Dinwiddie would come off the bench. He has been a sporadic starter over the course of his career, starting in 89 of the 272 games he has played. Last season, Dinwiddie started just four times.

Now, he has played himself into a respectable starting point guard. The fans have begun to chant "All-Star" when Dinwiddie is at the line, and at times his shooting ability demands double-teaming. When asked if Dinwiddie would continue to start alongside Irving, Atkinson said he would "cross that bridge when we come to it."

Dinwiddie said he is used to the roller coaster of those role changes.

"If you don't roll with it, you will be out the league," Dinwiddie said. "You don't have a choice. I could be out here trippin'. If you roll with it, we figure it out and I get to stay and sometimes, every so often, I'll have a big game."

Dinwiddie took his time digesting the loss and was one of the last players to leave the locker room. As Dinwiddie sat with a towel draped over his lap in front of his locker, Iman Shumpert called out to him on the way out of the locker room.

"Stay locked the f--- in," Shumpert said, peeking back over his shoulder with a grin. "We only lost by three. We have another game in three days."
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