The Nets have had a lot of trouble this season. They have had issues defending against all sorts of teams, big and quick, and have been out-hustled by more than a few teams all season long.
However, against the Chicago Bulls, the team that has haunted the Nets for the past year, everything clicked. The Nets, playing mostly a smaller lineup than the Bulls, controlled the paint, and beat the gritty Bulls to several loose balls. The Nets, for once this season, outplayed a team with a better record. And with that, they showed how they were expected to play down the stretch, even without Kevin Garnett.
The most notable statistic that shows how the Nets won is the number of forced turnovers. Of 28 Bulls turnovers, 19 were steals, the highest mark for a Nets team since March of 1989. Are you amazed at how the Nets forced the Bulls, who committed just three turnovers against the Knicks all game long the day before, into so many mistakes? Watch for yourself.
Some steals were simply street ball-esque, such as Shaun Livingston's steal in the middle of the third quarter (#12 in the video), or great instincts such as Deron Williams' steal in the fourth (#17). All in all, one thing that occurred during the majority of the steals was that the Nets played proper defense. Players sagged off their man, had a foot in the paint, and were prepared to help their teammate out if they got beat. Check out this play that saw the Nets show several different great defensive fundamentals while getting a stop.
Many coaches preach letting your teammate through (stepping back as your teammate cuts up to his man) in order for the player being screened to get to their man. That's exactly what Blatche and Livingston executed it. Livingston got back on his man rather easily. Paul Pierce, who I'll talk about more later, does a great job of taking up space in the paint. Jimmy Butler could look to drive to the middle, but as he does, Pierce shows himself, making that a difficult option.
The Nets also show great awareness during this sequence. Pierce and Joe Johnson both jump towards Jimmy Butler's ball fake to Taj Gibson. Players are focused. Not only would this be a tough pass for Butler to convert, but even if it did get to Gibson, a tough finish because of the overwhelming number of Nets around him.
The ball ends up going to Pierce's man, Carlos Boozer. Pierce's fine position puts him in the perfect situation to recover back to his man. Boozer uses all his 6'9" length and 266 pounds strength to get to the rim. However, the much smaller Pierce, 6'6", 230 pounds stands right in his way and puts his hands straight up in the air, forcing an errant shot by Boozer.
Despite the size advantage, Pierce matched up with Boozer all night and wasn't the least intimidated by the size differential. Pierce was all over Boozer, who has had big games against the Nets in the past. Just before the All Star break, Boozer controlled the matchup with Pierce, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Bulls beat down of the Nets in Chicago. This prompted many to think the Nets may have to play a bigger frontline if they wanted to match up with the likes of the Bulls and the Pacers. However, Pierce silenced the critics Monday with his tough play on Boozer.
Pierce wasn't just great on Boozer; he was great in several facets of his game. His jumper was smooth, but most importantly his defense was complete. It was seen in the above clip, and it will be shown again here, Pierce was everywhere on the defensive end.
This clip is similar to the one above, but it shows how Pierce wasn't afraid to let Boozer get some space. He knew he could return to the Dukie with ease and can close out on him just fine. Also seen in the video above is Mason Plumlee having a great rotation onto Boozer to prevent an uncontested layup.
Pierce was terrific in this game, one of his best yet in a Nets uniform. Boozer shot 1-of-7 with Pierce guarding him. Down the road, like in a possible playoff matchup with Chicago, Pierce-on-Boozer will likely be the most important matchup for the Nets. They can't let the starting lineup's size deficiency inseal their fate. If Pierce can play like he did in this one in playoffs --and that's usually the former Finals MVP does his best work, the Nets should be in great shape.
The Nets play against the taller and bigger Bulls was really quite something and is a testament to how far they have come as a team and developed into a competitive one. Yes, the Bulls are not an offensive juggernaut, but the Nets are not usually this defensive-minded a team. The Bulls shot 58% inside the paint in this contest, which isn't a great number when playing an undersized team like the Nets. To compare, the Nets shot nearly 71% from the same area.
The Bulls did pound the rock inside, taking almost half of their shots inside of the paint, but the Nets didn't make it easy. Even though the Nets got out-rebounded by a pretty big margin --the Bulls grabbed 43 rebounds to the Nets 28-- they didn't allow the Bulls to have their way in the paint, which will be crucial if the Nets continue to roll out their small-ball lineup.
One of the developments that went on as the game progressed was just how hard the Nets were playing. The Nets genuinely out-played their opponent, a tough one at that.
The Nets are very talented, but can play down to their opposition's level. Monday, though, the Nets got on the floor for loose balls, got out in transition, and looked like they were having fun blowing out one of the toughest teams in the NBA, one that game into the game 21-8 since January 1. And for one of the first times all season too, I was having fun watching them play. The ball moved around fine, their defensive was stellar, and they were beating a team that has haunted my dreams since last May. All without Kevin Garnett.
It is a small sample size, just two days prior, the Nets played down to one of the worst teams in basketball, the Milwaukee Bucks, so they must keep this momentum going into this final stretch. They have gotten back to .500, but this should just be the beginning.
All 19 Nets Steals vs Bulls (Video) - Reed Wallach - NetsDaily