Four games into the season, it was the Kyrie Irving show.
Irving came into Friday’s matchup with the Houston Rockets as the NBA’s second leading scorer, averaging a robust 35.3 points per game, trailing only James Harden.
Irving had been cooking, operating with fluidity and efficiency, but his dominance also came out of necessity. The team’s ball movement was stagnant, assists were down, and role players weren’t stepping up. It didn’t look like the Kenny Atkinson system of years past.
Chemistry kinks were to be expected, after all, the Nets are infusing five new rotation players and swapping out last year’s highest usage player in D’Angelo Russell for another in Irving. While Irving can do similar things to Russell, he has strengths in other areas as well and a tendency to bob and weave in the pick and roll more unpredictably.
Irving’s artistry as a ball-handler and orchestrator takes time to learn to play with. Screen-setters like Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan need to be more patient, it takes time for off-ball cutters like Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, and Rodions Kurucs to time their darts to the rim.
Irving is so uber-talented that almost any player that checks him, or tries to, is a ready made mismatch. He doesn’t need a screen to seek out a favorable defender, they’re all feast-worthy matchups when you’re Irving.
In saying that, it’s very easily to fall into isolation and just ask Irving to go get you a bucket — which he has proven to be elite at. It’s just as simple to trust LeVert’s first step acceleration and Dinwiddie’s isolation prowess to get to the rim at will against just about anyone.
Contrary to popular belief, isolation basketball is not a bad thing. The Rockets of the past few seasons have run more isolation that any other team in the league and they’ve consistently had a top-2 ranked offense — one of the best offenses in basketball history, only usually falling short to Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green embarrassment of riches. It’s all about picking your spots when to isolate and making sure the right personnel is on the floor to do it.
The Nets have the personnel to be a heavily successful isolation team. Irving is one of the toughest 1-on-1 guards in the league, Caris LeVert has the quickness to blow by anyone, and Spencer Dinwiddie finished fourth in the NBA last season with 1.05 points per possession in isolation, trailing only Harden (1.11), Khris Middleton (1.06), and his new teammate, KD (1.06).
There is going to be a heavy diet of isolation basketball in the Nets arsenal, there was last season, too.
However, the Nets also need to incorporate “the others” into the offense. Joe Harris and Taurean Prince are too talented to simply be standstill catch and shoot players. The integration of the role players — Harris, Prince, Allen, Jordan, and Temple — will be pivotal to the Nets success.
Friday’s big win over the Rockets was a glimpse at how deadly this offense could be when shots are distributed more evenly and isolation basketball is utilized optimally.
Irving didn’t even have his best game. He struggled with his shot for much of it, going scoreless in the first quarter and he even had seven turnovers, including five in the first half. However, despite all of that, Irving still finished with his first double-double as a Net, accumulating 22-points and 10-assists. Irving seemed to make an effort early on to get his teammates, specifically his shooters, involved. Prince (27-points and 12-rebounds) and Harris (15-points and 9-rebounds) both had big games, combining to connect on 9-of-14 threes attempted.
Brooklyn as a team torched the nets from the perimeter, shooting 19-for-32, that’s 59.4 percent!
From the center position, Allen and Jordan were often the beneficiaries of penetration from Brooklyn’s guards. The center duo combined for 13-points and 17-rebounds on the night.
And then the surprise of the night — Garrett Temple.
Temple had struggled throughout the team’s opening four contests, but put all of that in the rearview mirror with his performance on Friday. Temple chipped in 16-points and 7-rebounds off the bench, hitting (it seemed) every momentum shot possible. He even played exquisite defense on Harden and Allen said postgame that his veteran leadership on that end helped the team communicate their defensive coverages.
Friday’s win against Houston provided the blueprint for how this Nets team can be successful offensively this season. Get everyone involved early, spread the floor, drive and kick.
Kenny Atkinson said postgame that the Nets can’t rely on Kyrie Irving to be Superman every game — for its entirety — they need to stick to their principles, share the ball, and help him out. All of that’s true, but when it’s crunch time, the plan is still simple — get the ball to Kyrie Irving and get out of the way.
He’ll almost always save the day.