Brooklyn, N.Y. – When’s the last time you held a moment in high regard – perhaps a little too high – and that glorious occasion ultimately fell short? Me, well, I can already feel my flashbulb memory activating uncontrollably. Repressed memories of failed interviews, gut-wrenching breakups and agonizing sports losses are suddenly flooding to the surface of my amygdala as I grimace while writing these words.
Whatever it is that makes you squirm in discomfort, take those feelings and multiple them by a thousand. Only then, you’ll fit snuggly in Kyrie Irving’s flashy SpongeBob Nikes as the overtime buzzer expired against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
After leading his Brooklyn Nets from an insurmountable 18-point deficit with 50 incredulous points, a momentous opportunity was on the table for Irving’s taking. As a childhood fan of the New Jersey Nets, he once heaved countless pull-up shots from the driveway of his West Orange home. Presumably, with a fictional Continental Airlines Center crowd cheering in sheer astonishment as the ball whisked through the air. Kyrie’s endless preparation as a youngin’ had led to this moment. It was time to capture victory as the hero of his hometown Nets.
And yet, Irving’s iconic isolation just didn’t go as planned, and his go-ahead jumper glanced off side rim. Minnesota 127, Brooklyn 126. Feelings of anguish smeared across Irving’s face as all four of his new teammates helped him off the floor, patting him on the back and telling the hometown kid, “you’ll get ‘em next time.”
Sure, this wasn’t the storybook ending that Irving had planned all along, but here’s the reality… Kenny Atkinson said it best: This game was lost long before the final buzzer sounded. Three specific flaws sunk the Nets during their home opener: turnovers, methodical defense, and that accursed Karl-Anthony Towns.
Brooklyn coughed up the rock 16 total times, leading to 15 Minnesota points on the other side of the floor.
Commander-in-chief of the Nets’ lackadaisical passing committee was Spencer Dinwiddie, who continued his preseason pattern of mistimed lob passes. In just 19 minutes, Dinwiddie flipped four dying quails into the sea of Midwest arms as his alley-oop partner DeAndre Jordan stood by helplessly. See for yourself.
I wish I could inform you that this compilation was cultivated over months and months of work. But alas, all it took was one single game. Three years ago, yeah, maybe DeAndre Jordan could reach to the stars and slam that first lob home. But passes No. 2 and No. 4 are just off the mark, plain and simple.
Let’s wind things back and glance at that second clip from the video above. After a strong drive to the hole by Minnesota’s Jake Layman, Spencer Dinwiddie advanced up the floor with fervor (as he tends to do). Surveying the scene, he spots 31-year-old DeAndre Jordan leaking ahead of the pack. Spencer’s floor general instincts kicked instantaneously, and the sixth-year guard launched a sky-high, 35-foot lob pass that..
…careens off the back of the rim. Turnover, Brooklyn.
Of course, Dinwiddie wasn’t the only one responsible for Brooklyn’s somewhat lofty turnover number. Caris LeVert notched five errors of his own – twice by lifting his pivot foot while on the drive, the rest stemming from listless passes and reckless ballhandling. But make no mistake, Spencer Dinwiddie was primarily at fault on opening night. If he wants to continue his excellent leadership of Brooklyn’s backup brigade, he’s going to need to protect the ball accordingly. Brooklyn’s bench was outscored 32-21, and careless plays like those found above were a big reason why.
I’m going to come clean with you all: I was screaming, SCREAMING while watching the Nets defend Minnesota in transition.
Guarding the fast break is no easy task. Crossmatches happen, rotations scramble. Madness in transition is how those god-dang Golden State Warriors won three total championships (on top of, you know, God-given talent. But no big deal).
Still, there is a way to mediate an onslaught of fast-break scoring. Namely, communication between teammates and initiative from individual defenders.
This summer, Minnesota underwent a stylistic change of sorts. After launching the fifth-fewest three-pointers per game during 2018-2019, the Wolves completely flipped their narrative and hired former Houston Rockets executive Gersson Rosas. Rosas and his Morey-Ball ties quickly imprinted upon this young Wolves team. Small sample, I know, but Minnesota’s 41.8 three-pointers per game in the preseason ranked fourth among all 30 teams who qualified.
That willingness to launch from deep certainly carried over into game one, as Minnesota let loose 43 times from behind the Barclays Center arcs. Here’s where it gets concerning: Of those attempts, 25 were considered “wide-open” according the NBA’s statistical archives -- the highest of any such category.
Possessions like the one below are just unacceptable…
Here, Minnesota’s Jeff Teague advances the ball in semi-transition with Robert Covington lagging behind as the ‘trailer.’ On the other end, Brooklyn’s defensive line stands in unity, flat-footed and unaware of their impending doom. As Teague lands on the big blue “C” of that spiffy Barclays Center logo, he casually flips the rock into Covington’s eager hands. At this point, Joe Harris realizes his costly error; he’s left Minnesota’s trailer completely uncontested. Frantically, Lumberjack Joe lurches toward Covington’s swaying body… but it’s too late.
Three points on the board and the start of a 30-14 Minnesota run.
Props must be given to the Wolves’ young coach Ryan Saunders; his “five-out” offense flummoxed Brooklyn for four quarters and an overtime period. An example…
Once again, the still-speedy Jeff Teague pushes the pace, launching an outlet pass to Treveon Graham – who, by no coincidence (I’m sure), appeared quite rejuvenated against his former team. From there, Graham attacks off the closeout before launching a skip pass to Lord Covington. Once again, our guy Joey Buckets is out of position. Instead of latching onto Covington, a 37.8 percent three-point shooter, Joe stares into space, ball-watching to the highest degree.
There’s subtle irony in Harris allowing an opposing shooter to leak out to the three. After all, catching defenders off-guard is how Joe has made his money in the NBA -- $20 million in total, to be exact.
Lack of communication between defenders was a big issue from Wednesday’s overtime loss. Here’s a great example. A familiar scene: A five-out transition offense from Minnesota with a sweet-shooting trailer (this time, Karl-Anthony Towns). Jeff Teague, the man behind the madness, kicks the ball left to former Net Shabazz Napier, who is left alone on an island.
Ideally, one of Joe Harris or Caris LeVert would step up to contest the 6’1” UConn product. But nope! Instead, both players slide to the left corner and pick up Treveon Graham, their former teammate who knocked down just 28.7 percent of his threes as a Net. All the while, not a single word of communication, much less a yelp, was uttered from either player’s mouth. Shabazz has time to dribble, pull out his phone and send a quick marketing tweet, call his mom with loving salutations, and pick up his kids from school before launching the still-open three-point shot.
Fortunately, like many ‘wide-open’ Minnesota looks (75% of them to be exact), the ball whizzed past the rim for a hapless Timberwolf miss.
One last clip before we move on.
As you can tell, containing transition proved to be a futile task for the gents in black-and-white. Unfortunately, careless match-up patterns leaked into other elements of Brooklyn’s team defense.
A half-court set this time… Karl-Anthony Towns receives the ball at the high post while his co-stars evenly position themselves across the three-point line. Let me ask you this: Who, and I mean WHO is Spencer Dinwiddie guarding on the strong side? Is it Andrew Wiggins, the 33.1 percent career three-point shooter, who already had Caris LeVert tucked deep in his jersey? Is he (I don’t know at this point…) trying to double-team Karl-Anthony Towns?
That answer may be one of life’s greatest mysteries, but the resulting action is clear. With Dinwiddie guarding empty space, poor Taurean Prince is left alone on the weakside, tasked with containing two players.
Many of you may be smiling at the outcome. The shot didn’t go in, who cares? But Brooklyn’s process, or lack thereof, is troubling. Communication between defenders is of the upmost necessity. Someone, shoot, anyone needs to call out those dang rotations.
No answer for the killer K-A-T
While most of Minnesota’s shooters failed to hit the broad side of the rusty barn, Karl-Anthony Towns was near-unconscious for most of the night. As the Wolves’ leading scorer with 36 points, Towns canned an outrageous seven of his eleven total threes.
The phrase “matchup proof” is an overused basketball cliché but, man, there’s no other way to describe Minnesota’s monster in the middle. The former No. 1 overall pick is already a prestigious post scorer, ranking within the 74th percentile last season (per Synergy). Even more terrifying, per The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks, Towns is “No. 2 (behind Stephen freaking Curry) in career 3-point percentage among players who have averaged at least 20 points per game and taken at least 100 3s.”
Brooklyn’s rim-running, paint-bound bigs, Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan, learned this the hard way. (Typically, neither player leaves the restricted circle, much less the painted area on defense.)
DeAndre Jordan, bless his beautiful humorous soul, is from a different era of basketball. Back in his prime, traits like “verticality” (shouts to Roy Hibbert) were held in the upmost importance for centers. Now, heh, bigs are doing stuff like this.
This may sound like revisionist history, but we all should have seen Towns’ white hot performance coming from a mile away. Systemically speaking, a big like Towns is supposed to bust Brooklyn’s defense at the seams. This clip below though? Well, no excuses here for our friend DeAndre. This is just lazy coverage. Step up, DAJ!
The big issue with letting Towns cook from deep early on is that it eradicated any sturdy defensive efforts going forward. Here, Jarrett Allen sneaks that 7’6” wingspan into the vision of Towns but to no avail. I’ll let NBA Jam explain the rest: He’s on fire!
Karl-Anthony Towns is an anomaly in a sense, but he isn’t the only center whose shooting talents can ignite in a flash. Just in the East alone, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner and Nikola Vucevic will gladly rain fire on Brooklyn’s bigs. It’s on Kenny Atkinson to instill confidence in his centers and assure that Wednesday’s lethargic hiccup was an outlier, and not a pattern going forward.
These problems are all fixable, my friends. Just stay patient.