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FILM STUDY: Can the Brooklyn Nets build a ‘defense that wins playoffs?’

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Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Coach Steve Nash has made defense a strong point of emphasis ever since he took over the reins as Brooklyn’s rookie head coach. On Sunday, after one of the Nets’ last full practices before the season begins against the Warriors Tuesday, Nash hammered home his favorite key principle that will define the Nets this season.

“We’ve always got to improve our defense. Our defense has gotta be a staple for us where we’re trending in the right direction continually, we’re addressing our weaknesses and mistakes, and we’re gaining connectivity. I’ve been proud of the way they’ve been competing defensively, a lot of good things. But a long way to go, as you’d expect. That’s something that’s going to be a journey defensively all season, to continue to climb and be the best defensive team we can be.”

Nash is not wrong; there were many things to feel jovial about watching Brooklyn defend during its two preseason games, and plenty to feel some pride about. Holding the Boston Celtics to less than 100 points, a team that many pegged as conference finalists, is nothing to sneeze at.

A few weeks back, I hypothesized about what Brooklyn’s defense could look like, schematically speaking, derived from newcomer Landry Shamet’s comments that Nash’s scheme featured elements he “hadn’t seen before.” For those of you stuck in that Monday morning malaise, too sluggish to click on that link, here’s a quick TLDR; based on Joe Harris saying that the Nets planned to “put more pressure on the offensive ball-handlers,” and by glancing over Brooklyn’s roster that flaunts two shot-swatting centers, I predicted that the Nets would be a persnickety, pesky unit along the perimeter. They would collapse onto opposing creators like a famished pack of wolves, working under the assurance of evergreen backing by two solid, if not superior bigs that could clean up for their mistakes.

Based on Friday’s beatdown against the Celtics––a game in which the Nets combined for 13 steals and 20 blocks––that prediction about the Nets aggressiveness in the passing lanes (and elsewhere) has been correct. What I didn’t expect in early December, however, was just how awesome Kevin Durant would look on defense. Rather than deploying just one field-goal eraser inside the paint, Durant has provided Nash with a delectable rarity...

A twin towers alignment, and one that can do more than just “survive” offensively. Through two exhibition games, Durant has racked up five, count ‘em, five blocks. That’s good for 11th-best of the 506 players who qualified. The Reaper’s expertise as a heat-seeking shot-denier has allowed his Nets to shield their own basket from both the strong-side AND the weak-side in the same possessions.

Still, Steve Nash realizes that––to borrow an old cliche––it’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint with Kevin Durant as his Transformer-like defender, a deterrent who can mold and conform to his matchups regardless of his team’s needs.

“Kevin is capable of being an ‘A’ defender,” said Nash. “But I don’t want to overburden him. He hasn’t played basketball in 18 months. We want to continually build his individual defense, as he acclimates back to the demands of the NBA. At the same time, we always want to improve collectively. He does give us versatility. He’s so long and athletic and quick that he can cover pretty much anyone on the floor to a high level. But that’s something we have to be patient with. It’s a big change from playing pickup games.

“Recovering from an Achilles rupture, we can’t just expect his best out the gates. We’ve gotta give him time to adapt on both ends of the floor, but I think more so defensively. When you’re in an informal environment for 10 months-ish, you’re going to focus more on the offense. Now it’s time for him to just start building that defense back up––his footwork, his positioning, his understanding. And he’s been great. He’s been improving at it every day. To defend is sometimes the last thing that comes.”

While Durant may be a long-term project on defense, his frontcourt partners offer vastly different styles of support in the interim. Jarrett Allen, who in 2018-2019 earned himself high-praise for astute marks in basket protection, has since then grown beyond that rim-rolling, shot-swatting archetype––at least slightly. He’s begun to show increasing comfort defending along the perimeter, an experiment that began in the Orlando “bubble” thanks to mad scientist of a coach, Jacque Vaughn, and has since then become a reliable part of Allen’s Frankenstein-scary defensive arsenal.

I threw up a screenshot from Friday’s game against the Celtics on my Twitter account, but just look how high Jarrett Allen is positioned while defending ball-screens, ready to provide secondary help should any of his perimeter Nets teammates get caught up in sticky opposing screens. Gone are the days of Jarrett hanging back in the paint in Kenny Atkinson’s trademarked zone coverage; “The Fro” is a new man, reborn under the starry skies of contemporary basketball thinking in a manger of multi-positionality.

In contrast, fellow center DeAndre Jordan has, thus far, chosen to defend in a more “drop” style of coverage, hanging back in the paint while screening actions occur at the arc. You’ll notice below in the first clip just how deep Jordan is playing against Jayson Tatum, a spectacular 40.4 percent pull-up three-point shooter in 2019-2020, who promptly detonates from long-range after Kevin Durant gets caught up on a sneaky Robert Williams rescreen. DJ’s feet are practically submerged in the restricted circle, leaving Tatum completely unattended!

Look, man, sure it’s just the preseason. But if this is how the Nets plan to use their centers against Stephen Curry and the Warriors, well, get ready for a prolific Splash Bro night. With the quickest, most accurate of triggers, Curry needs only a whisker of airspace to pull from deep-land. That’s problematic for the Nets if they’re only throwing one defender Curry’s way at the perimeter, without any secondary help should a ball-screen come along.

“If you talk to the coaches, we wanna put in the defense that wins playoffs,” said Jarrett Allen on Sunday. “There are certain defenses that you can get through the regular season with, but when it comes down to the last couple of people, you want to have a defensive scheme that stops them.”

If Stephen Curry or Jayson Tatum or even Devonte’ Graham (who torched the Nets from deep a season ago) gets hot from outside the arc while the Nets run a conservative scheme like drop coverage, there’s no reason to declare the sky falling after Brooklyn’s first three games. After all, the Nets offense already appears strong enough to coast off of and cruise to a top-seed in the East during the regular season.

But Jarrett is right in his evaluation. Some defenses are best-suited to the regular season; others are built for the playoffs. We’ve seen the limits of a conservative drop-back style last season when the Milwaukee Bucks [redacted] the bed against the Miami Heat in the second round. The year before, the Portland Trail Blazers cautious “drop” defense was swept handily by the Durant-less Golden State Warriors. Even for a team like the Denver Nuggets... they were forced to toy with moving the slow podding Nikola Jokic toward “the level” of screens to keep creators at bay.

In a compressed 72-game season, Nash will need to discover his team’s identity––and fast. Finding the right defensive scheme that fully takes advantage of his twin towers trump card will be paramount. Will the Nets “play it safe?” Or will they build something sustainable? Can Brooklyn cultivate a defense that traverses across the playoffs?

We await the receipts.