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FILM STUDY: Nets, working off loose offensive template, are bonafide PROBLEM

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

There is an art to generating the perfect reaction to preseason basketball. On one hand, it’s best to take things as they come, accept that mistakes and miscues will happen (especially in such a compressed offseason), and realize that there is ample time for improvement across the board. On the other, you want to glean something from these “dress rehearsals,” to quote the always philosophical Steve Nash, on the eve of the regular season. It’s a tough balance to strike.

And I have not mastered it.

So rather than overreacting (or underreacting) to the smaller details––missed assignments on defense, schematic decisions, rotations––let’s accept what the Nets players have told us at face value.

Friday’s game against the Boston Celtics was what this Brooklyn juggernaut looks like when it’s improvising––without plays drawn in wipeable ink, without specific motions to get players freed-up in their favorite spots. In fact, there’s a chance that this is the worst the Nets will look as an offensive unit this year. They’re just freestyling.

It’s just vibes out there.

“A lot of it - a lot of it,” Kyrie Irving said about the Nets improvisation. “Just high-level basketball IQ. Just relying on each other to make the right plays. Basketball is really simple when you play it with pace and keep the defense guessing. Also, defense can be your best offense as well so we have been hammering.”

The other half of the 7/11 duo doubled-down on that message.

“I feel like coach (Mike) D’Antoni, Steve (Nash), Ime (Udoka) have been talking to us a lot about the offensive side of the ball,” explained Kevin Durant. “Kind of gave us a blank canvas and let us create how we want to create––giving us a template of things to work out of. Guys are using their IQs and instincts for the game to make the right play. For example, Joe (Harris) coming off of screens in transition and just sprinting up to the ball to shoot threes. And then Caris (LeVert) coming off the bench and providing a spark for us as a scorer. That little stuff is just things that come out on the fly. My teammates and I have a high IQ for the game, and it’s all about playing off that template.”

This is Brooklyn’s base offense: Kevin Durant posting and rising over the top of a smaller defender (Semi Ojeleye), and Kyrie Irving isolating and (practically) forward-lateraling a behind-the-back dribble against one of the top wing-defenders in the league in Jayson Tatum. Both of these methods of scoring sit snuggly in Steve Nash’s pocket, able to be whipped out at any time like a handkerchief at the slightest sign of duress.

Combine these two prolific scorers into one singular action, and the results get even prettier.

The pick-and-roll (yes, the Nets did it!), with either superstar screening for the other, is a mismatch-generating cornucopia. In both of these clips, it’s Irving who is screening for Durant in what’s known as a “inverted” pick-and-roll (where the smaller player screens for the larger player)––though admittedly, Irving “ghosts” both of these on-ball screens by refraining from making any contact and hustling into open space.

Aaron Nesmith, a rookie, guarding Kevin Durant? Barbeque chicken. The Nets will feast on these types of alignments all season long if defenses continue to switch this easily. (I know, I know, it’s just preseason. I hear you.)

There are ways to go beyond just a strict two-man pick-and-roll with Kyrie screening for Kevin, or vice versa, and the Nets did exactly that by busting out some “pistol” action. Typically with “pistol,” a ball-handler dribbles toward the sideline where he’s met by a perimeter player. At the top of the key rests a trailing big. Teams can improvise however they’d like in this alignment, and you can learn more about how to do that here.

In this specific play, Irving pitches to Durant in that right strongside corner, who then kicks to DeAndre Jordan at the top of the key. Notice the “dummy” action on the other side of the floor––the always-moving Joe Harris bumping up to the wing from the corner––to distract the defense. Meanwhile, as Jordan clutches the rock with a veteran’s patience, Irving and Durant congregate for a brief second before breaking apart in what’s known as a “split cut,” which is when two players move in sync before cutting in different directions in relation to the defense, leading to a wide-open Kyrie Irving layup.

*Kisses fingers* Magnifique!

Working within a template with those formidable borders of superstardom gives Brooklyn’s supporting cast all the freedom in the world to ad-lib on-the-fly, working in unison to curate abstract art pieces with paint splatters of Caris LeVert’s vibrant downhill attacks, balanced out by those smoother plain-hued brush-strokes of Joe Harris’ steady off-ball play. (Suddenly, you see why Brooklyn will soon don jerseys in honor of a prolific neo-expressionist painter. This is Basquiat-level offense.)

Let’s start with Caris.

We (and by that, I mean “me”) spend a lot of time wringing our hands over Caris’ off-ball impact. But the best way to utilize him as an away-from-the-action player may be sitting in front of our faces. After all, Caris only qualified as a cutter just 45 meager times during the 2019-2020 season (per Synergy). Allowing him to build up some speed like a slingshot provides ample opportunity to bust out his prolifically crafty at-the-basket bag.

Watch LeVert explode off a Kevin Durant lead-pass. Once the 26-year-old gets into that first step, it’s damn near impossible to slow him down––as he can both screech past just about any defender who gets in his way, but also bust out his elite change-of-pace game to stop on a dime with signature herky-jerkiness. LeVert’s like a Porshe 911 on offense, with a brake pad that activates at the slightest twitch of the foot, and a 0-to-60 that causes irreversible whiplash.

It was bold, no, better yet, it took testicular fortitude for Steve Nash to commit to utilizing Caris LeVert––who many have prognosticated to be Brooklyn’s third-star––as the first man off the bench, rather than a starter. But... honestly? Based on Friday, I kind of understand Nash’s line of thinking.

LeVert is best with the ball in his hands. We know this. We also know that putting backup players––those without the requisite skillsets to play amongst the starters––on Caris, a 30-point scorer on any given night, is a recipe for disaster. It’s downright rude for LeVert to do this to Jeff Teague around the holidays. What a grinch! What a Scrooge!

With LeVert humming as an offense unto himself, Nash and Jacque Vaughn reached back into the “restart” playbook with some pet actions for Caris and his “bubble” buddy (where’s @NetsDepiction when we need him), Jarrett Allen. For those of you who stuck around during the odd days of the Orlando restart, this “horns” clip below may look a little familiar.

With Jarrett Allen and Landry Shamet standing near the elbows, Caris LeVert enters the ball to Jarrett Allen. At this point, Shamet, positioned at the adjacent elbow, curls around Caris for what appears to be a dribble-handoff with Allen. But not so fast! Allen dribbles, fakes, and then returns the rock to Caris, where the two of them engage in an on-the-spot pick-and-roll.

The magic of this play is when Allen “slips” his screen a second early as Jeff Teague and Daniel Theis trap LeVert hard. This forces Peyton Prichard, guarding Shamet at the wing, to “tag” Allen on the roll, and Landry cans the three when the ball is swung his way.

We’ll close out with “regular Joe,” whose moppy-headed superpowers have only heightened next to two All-NBA level talents. Durant explained it best: Give Joe even the slightest bit of room with a screen in transition, and he’s off to the races. Or better yet, he can just create his own shot by faking screens and jutting into vacant space.

(More “ghost” screens” from Brooklyn!)

Something to keep in mind is that Harris shot 47.1% from deep off Irving’s passes a season ago. On Friday, that proved to be a still profitable pairing.

With mistakes to clean up and reps still needed to build familiarity, the Nets and Steve Nash have their work cut out for them. But after a 24-point beatdown against a conference rival, and 92 points through three quarters, I’d say Brooklyn is in pretty fantastic shape coming into Tuesday’s ball-game against Kevin Durant’s former employer.