Just one month into this still-fetal 2019-2020 NBA season, for most professional ball clubs, it’s far too early to describe individual games as “make or break nights.” That sort of jargon is normally assigned to the backend of 82-game NBA schedules.
Yet, with a shaky 5-8 record (prior to Wednesday night’s contest), the Brooklyn Nets were already stuck within that nightmarish “do-or-die” reality, flaunting every bit of distasteful basketball behavior in the book. Defensively, the Nets were an outright disaster, allowing opponents to pick their spots whenever they pleased. If the Nets built momentum on offense, they’d then proceed to gift-wrap that lead to their opponents with the speed of Amazon Prime shipping.
Worst of all, in tight game situations, Brooklyn’s offense stagnated into AAU-like turn-taking. Aesthetically speaking, that joyous feeling that Brooklyn evoked just 9 months ago had dissolved into empty nothingness. Not even a fourth of the way through the season, raising the red flag should have seemed prudent. But it wasn’t. Brooklyn was in trouble.
Which brings us to Wednesday’s matchup versus the overachieving Charlotte Hornets – a resilient “no one believes in us” opponent that had already rallied back from three 8-point-or-more fourth quarter deficits to start the season. With Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert stuck on the injury reserve, the table was once again set for a slow-cooked meal. The main course? The barely-beating heart from the epicenter of Nets Nation.
Yet, for every Hornets pushback, the Nets countered with an equally forceful, shushing run of their own. Just three minutes into the second quarter, the Nets built a two-point lead after Iman Shumpert’s 18-foot step-back jumper and, really, never looked back, leading by 3 points or more for the entire duration of the second half. Brooklyn’s 10-point victory over Charlotte is already the statement win of the season, and it marked the first joyous occasion that the Nets finally held an opponent under 100 points. Three scrappy Nets, in particular, displayed that trademarked Brooklyn grit during Wednesday’s impressive showing.
Consider this to be my victory lap. A 30-foot heat-check of sorts in column-form.
Two weeks ago, I covered Jarrett Allen’s slow-but-steady progress. While some youngsters (like, coincidentally, the Hornets’ Devonte’ Graham) materialize out of thin air to streak across our skyline and leave trails of stardust for all the blogs to see, Allen has improved incrementally, taking a sui generis rise to power. In that column, I covered multiple areas of growth for young Jarrett, including offensive rebounding and, possibly, perimeter defense.
After last night’s performance… Jarrett, buddy, I owe you a beer. Or soda. Or vitamin water. Whatever it is that you drink.
Prepare yourself for a basketball blogger cliché, but Jarrett Allen’s impact isn’t always felt on the stat sheet. Great positioning on defense isn’t exactly easily quantifiable. For the most part, his efforts on the floor regularly get swept under the rug to fester with other “intangibles” dust mites. Last night, Jarrett took exception to that rule with 22 big boy points and 17 monster rebounds – both of which were season highs. Standing at 6’11” with a sideline-to-sideline-touching 7’6” wingspan, Allen flourished with his arms-reach advantage over Charlotte’s center, Cody Zeller, and his pterodactyl-like 6’11”reach. Recognizing that he was the biggest and longest human on the floor, Allen gobbled up boards like a Hungry Hungry Hippo, crashing the offensive glass at nearly every opportunity.
Through Allen’s efforts, Brooklyn annihilated Charlotte on both the defensive glass (40-33) and in offensive rebounding (13-8). At one point, the 21-year-old afro-ed madman snagged a one-handed 50/50 ball within a sea of three white jerseys while falling to the ground. (Let me just say, I’ll never truly get an accurate feel for Jarrett’s coordination. How Allen can grab boards with one hand but also whiff wide-open dunks in the same dang game is beyond me.)
Just two weeks ago, I tentatively made small observations on Allen’s improving perimeter defense:
For quite some time, I’ve privately fantasized over Allen transforming into a switchable center. I don’t want to sound the alarm just yet, but we may be getting our first taste of panko crust from that long trail of breadcrumbs. After supergluing his massive frame to the painted area for all of last season, Jarrett’s made concerted efforts in stepping out to the arc during Year 3.
With that explanation, I included a couple of middling closeouts from recent games. The thesis was: It’s not perfect but he’s trying. A backhanded compliment of the highest degree.
What happened on Wednesday… completely shattered my brain. Possession after possession, Allen guarded out the three-point line like a fully engaged Anthony Davis. As I sat there taking in his greatness, mouth agape, it felt as if I was suddenly living in an alternate reality. Had I accidentally stepped into one of Stewie’s time portal machines? How could the once-tentative 21-year-old show such dramatic, no, better yet, disgusting growth in such a short span of time? As Allen sealed off victory by engulfing a shifty Devonte’ Graham drive, my consciousness was thoroughly altered and completely vacated my body. “Who am I?” I shouted to the skies. “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?”
Compare the closeouts from the video above to the Jarrett Allen of two weeks ago, and it genuinely feels as if you’re watching two different players. In all five clips, Jarrett stays grounded on pump-fakes, he slides his feet accordingly to stay with the smaller player, and he keeps his hands raised to contest the eventual shot. Allen’s lateral movement is solid, reaaal solid, and if he can brandish this type of versatile defensive energy regularly, Brooklyn is one step closer to running a true-blue 1-through-5 switching defense.
Let it be known: I haven’t always been kind to Taurean Prince in the past. This doesn’t come from a place of spite. Rather, it stems from just how much I see in the guy. The potential is wholeheartedly there to become an elite 3-and-D wing.
Prince is a mercenary from deep (39.4 percent on 6.7 attempts per game) who’s showcased defensive intelligence during his one-on-one matchups. Still, he has his areas for growth: shot creation, off-ball defense and, most of all, facilitating to teammates. Yet on Wednesday, Prince challenged his biggest weakness with noticeable aggression. The dude was flat-out religious in his approach to making the extra pass.
Too often does it feel like Prince already has mind made up on his finishing move before putting the ball on the floor. Rather than taking in what the defense provides, Prince likes to cascade down the lane haphazardly before attempting volatile attempts at the rim. Based on last night, however, there may be a new sheriff, err, Prince in town.
On the night, Prince recorded four total assists, a number that doesn’t necessarily pop from the screen. Going through the tape, however, the degree of difficulty on each of these passes is immediately apparent.
The most common denominator to Prince’s season-tying assist total occurred via the “drive and dump-off” to his bigs. The formula is simple -- but detailed. Thanks to the threat of his near-40 percent-capable shooting clip, Prince waits for his perimeter defender to overcommit on his closeout. With his defender caught wrong-footed, Prince thunders down the lane, drawing in the opposing big man. At the opportune moment, Prince squeaks by a nifty, picture-perfect dump-off pass to his center, causing the Barclays Center crowd to erupt in sheer delight.
I had to rewind the tape just to make sure I wasn’t watching prime Steve Nash in the clip below (kidding… kind of). Channeling some serious Spencer Dinwiddie downhill energy, Prince gallops down the lane before launching a one-handed zippy skip pass to the corner. Joe Harris – a renowned 42.5 percent three-point shooter this season – is somehow wide freakin’ open thanks to the gravity of Prince’s drive. “Thank you very much, kind sir,” Harris (likely) says, before tipping his cap and bombing away.
In short, more of this, Taurean.
Kudos to Spence. Ever since Kyrie Irving went down with his untimely injury (aren’t they all!), the backup PG has picked up the slack and then some. Averaging 26 points and 6.7 assists in his last three games, Dinwiddie’s kept Brooklyn’s rudderless offense afloat during some truly dire times. That early-season slump feels like it occurred decades, no, eons ago.
I gushed about Dinwiddie in my most recent “Trending Up, Trending Down” article, so if you missed that, go ahead and give ya boy a read. Wednesday night was more of the same from Brooklyn’s current best player. He kept the defense just honest enough with his Kenny Atkinson-panic-attack-inducing step-back threes, he flicked a couple of groovy skip passes to his shooters, and Din fueled the Nets’ transition game with finishes through contact.
What impressed me the most about Dinwiddie’s night (outside of his eight total assists) was his commitment to defense. Provided that there isn’t a screen in his way, Dinwiddie’s so tall for his position (6’5”), he can credibly stay with just about any guard or wing who dares cross his path. Opponents are shooting just 42.5 percent in the face of Dinwiddie’s defense – a top-15 mark among guards who have contested at least 40 shots this season. Dinwiddie’s pesky on-ball defense shook the Hornets nest on multiple occasions (heh, get it?... I’ll see myself out). My favorite possession of the night? Spencer’s post coverage against the always stout Marvin Williams, which produced a hapless airball and a sea of laughs from the jeering Brooklyn Brigade.
A huge congratulations to Jarrett, Taurean, Spencer and the rest of the Brooklyn Nets for the opportune win. Here’s to hoping Wednesday night’s showcase gravitationally alters Brooklyn’s season, causing those daunting tides to turn.