Whether for lack of horses or lack of trying, the Nets’ defensive deficiencies have plagued them in a recent stretch that has seen them lose eight out of nine games, including three straight. Brooklyn’s only win in the last two weeks came against the New York Knicks, playing without Carmelo Anthony on the second night of a back-to-back.
Much of the Nets’ struggles–aside from the well-documented dearth of talent–can be attributed to their inability defend the rim. Brooklyn’s defense struggled mightily under former head coach Lionel Hollins, and somehow it has managed to get worse under interim head coach Tony Brown.
To Brown’s credit, the offense has functioned at a much higher rate. If the 106-79 loss to the Spurs is thrown out–because, well, they’re the Spurs–the Nets are posting 100 ppg. After opening 1-of-6 from the field in a 112-100 loss to the Toronto Raptors Monday night, the Nets spent much of the night converting at a 60.7 percent clip before going ice cold (1-for-9) in the final 5:56 of the game.
Joe Johnson has summoned the fountain of middle age, knocking down more than 50 percent of his three-pointers in January. Johnson scored 22 points on just 12 shots Monday, and he was able to get to any spot he chose on the floor. The team, as a whole, has had better flow.
But in order to create this newfound offensive efficiency, the Nets haven’t just taken some slack on the defensive end; they’ve let go of the rope entirely. Toronto scored on 50.6 percent of their shot attempts, just one game after the Atlanta Hawks buried an eye-opening 55.6 percent of their shots. The Hawks also added 64 points in the paint. Those are not exactly encouraging numbers considering the Nets’ lone strength is the presence of Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young in the frontcourt.
Since Brown has taken over as coach, the Nets are allowing opponents to shoot at 51.1 percent. The team that scored at the lowest rate–the Knicks at 45.1 percent shooting–also happened to lose. It’s no secret that the best teams play the best defense, and right now, Brooklyn’s sole focus has been on one end of the floor.
That’s not in any way to say Brown bears responsibility for this disturbing trend. In fact, the team has struggled defensively since the start of last season. And to be fair, the Nets have not really excelled on the defensive end since they played a small lineup in 2013-14 that featured Mason Plumlee at center, Shaun Livingston at the two, and Paul Pierce as an undersized power forward.
The Nets are currently yielding 46.6 percent shooting to their opponents, including 9.5 made three-pointers a night. Both of those categories rank third worst. All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry nearly eclipsed that mark himself in Toronto’s home win over Brooklyn. The point guard went 7-for-9 from behind the arc and missed just three shots total en route to a 31-point, 8-assist performance. The Raptors buried 13 three-pointers (54.2 percent).
Following Atlanta’s dismantling of Brooklyn’s D, several theorized about what has to change. “They pretty much had us at their will,” former Hawk Joe Johnson said. “I looked up and it was tied 55-55 and the next thing I knew, we were down by 30 points. I’m not sure what went wrong, but from every guy, we have to be ready to come in and play. No excuses.”
Some of the problems stem from poor closeouts or going under the screen as opposed to over in the pick-and-roll. The Raptors exploited those very issues, as did the Portland Trail Blazers Friday night in Brooklyn. Damian Lillard and his supporting cast feasted on the Nets’ inability guard the three, converting 15-of-35.
If the Nets have any more to give on the defensive end, the change needs to come sooner rather than later. The Nets will take on the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, ranked seventh in ESPN’s defensive efficiency ratings, and the Utah Jazz Friday, who are far better defensively than their ranks indicate because of the recent return of center Rudy Gobert.
“You get into adversity, things are not going your way, it’s easy to not try to do as much to try and change it,’’ Brown said. “We’ve got some guys who aren’t playing their best basketball, but they’ve got to fight their way out of these situations.”
“At the end of the day, we have to keep going,” Young said. “We have to want it more.”