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FILM STUDY: How the Nets beat the Lakers ... with defense

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Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Truthfully, I’m not even sure where to begin. For the past 48 hours, I’ve been paralyzed by the sheer stillness of our planet, frozen in fear, stricken by the unknowingness (is that a word?) of a dystopian (that’s surely a word!) future that grows more and more terrifying with every pleading testimonial and social media post.

Without a timeline on when to expect the world to start turning again, it’s easy to feel as if we’re grasping for straws, looking for a resolution to an irresolute situation.

Soooo, rather than being prisoners of the moment, let’s do what we do best: bundle up, grab some delicious snacks, fill up on fluids, and distract ourselves with this league we love and cherish!

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On Tuesday, the Nets’ came out victorious with, by far, their best performance of the season. At that point, the Nets were three days removed from firing long-time head coach Kenny Atkinson, a pillar of Brooklyn’s success.

And so, out came Kenny and in came little known quantity Jacque Vaughn, whose only coaching experience was during a fruitless rebuild in Orlando. Pitted against the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers – who were coming off two huge weekend victories versus the league-best Bucks and the title-favorite Clippers – Vaughn implemented a variety of changes to Brooklyn’s strategies. On offense, Brooklyn showcased increased willingness to hurl shots from the midrange. However, it was the defense that underwent the biggest facelift.

Overnight, the Nets transformed from a defensive unit that alternated between 3-2 zone and man-to-man coverage to a 1-through-5 switching nucleus full of low-post digs, timely double-teams, stunts and pick-and-roll blitzes. A great deal of focus, communication, familiarity and harmony is required between each and every teammate to pull this complex system off, and it’s bold that Vaughn made such stark changes this early into his tenure. To make sense of Brooklyn’s first performance with this new style of play, let’s revisit a concept from February; we’ll be rating 15 switching sequences with a tally and answer this important question…

Was Jacque Vaughn’s tinkering on defense a net-positive or a net-negative? Let’s get into it.

1st quarter, 10:40

With LeBron James, fitth in total transition possessions this season, pushing the ball up the court on the fast-break, Danny Green sets a ball-screen near the short corner with his back to the baseline. Green’s pick connects – twice, in fact – and Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris fail to communicate whatsoever, allowing for James to surge toward the hoop for the easy made basket. Ideally, Harris would have notified his teammate of the incoming ball-screen and/or switched with Dinwiddie at the point of contact. But alas, neither of those things happened and we’ll be scoring this a -1.

1st quarter, 9:10

With a scrumptious mismatch in the low-post against the much tinier Caris LeVert, Anthony Davis receives an entry pass from Avery Bradley. With a slight shove, Davis creates enough space to dribble toward the basket, forcing DeAndre Jordan to shift over as the helper.

Here’s where things go wrong: Joe Harris attempts to tag Jordan’s man (JaVale McGee) to prevent the dump-off opportunity inside the paint. What Joe misses is Wilson Chandler simultaneously sprinting toward McGee to… well, do the same damn thing. With two Net defenders covering the same Laker jersey, a simple Anthony Davis skip-pass leads to a wide-open Danny Green three-pointer; who, by the way, should have been Harris’s assignment throughout this entire possession, regardless of the threat of McGee. Too easy… an indisputable -2 in our final gradebook.

1st quarter, 5:19

Anthony Davis receives the ball near the left wing and his teammate Danny Green creeps toward his general direction, engineering a switch between Wilson Chandler and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. TLC is basically barbequed Chicken Francese by the Lakers’ All-Star forward, and Davis bullies his way toward the hoop for the bucket plus the foul. Wilson Chandler’s got to fight harder in the face of Green’s screen to give his Nets a favorable matchup in the post and bail out the poor Frenchman. -3.

1st quarter, 4:46

Pretty simple stuff on this one. Kyle Kuzma, guarded by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, swings a pass to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the corner and quickly sets a screen on KCP’s man, Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie and Luwawu-Cabarrot switch correctly, however TLC blows this golden opportunity by halfheartedly maneuvering around Kuzma’s screening body, giving KCP plenty of room to rise up for the three. More effort is needed from the newly minted 3-and-D specialist. -4.

1st quarter, 3:28

As they tend to do, the Lakers – fifth in transition efficiency – push the pace up the floor. Rajon Rondo flips a gorgeous one-handed dime to Markieff Morris, who is stopped by a nice Chris Chiozza closeout. In response, Morris begins to crab-dribble his way into the post to feast on his smaller defender. Taurean Prince’s snappy low-post dig alarms Morris into surrendering the rock, leading to a semi-contested Kyle Kuzma miss. Finally, a +1!

1st quarter, 1:51

A side pick-and-roll provides the Lakers with a favorable switch: Anthony Davis is now guarded by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. A round of applause to TLC; he fronts Davis brilliantly near the basket, forcing a deflection, steal and Nets transition opportunity. +2.

1st quarter, 1:08

If you can’t already tell, these stinkin’ Lakers are an old-school group of gigantic humans that run a great deal of post-up basketball (second in total post-up possessions) – especially against mismatches, which is exactly what happens here. Anthony Davis receives a post touch while being guarded by Caris LeVert. Jarrett Allen makes a quick executive decision: He leaves the non-shooter Rajon Rondo open at the arc and digs at Davis to get the ball out of the superstar’s hands. KCP cuts middle, Anthony Davis makes the obvious pass, and the Lakers fall right into Brooklyn’s trap; Taurean Prince slaps Caldwell-Pope’s layup off the glass for the emphatic block. +3.

2nd quarter, 5:30

Midway through the second quarter, the Lakers secured an offensive rebound and immediately rerouted into a side pick-and-roll. Brooklyn switches and DeAndre Jordan – yes, THE DeAndre Jordan, whose feet regularly appear soaked in tar, cement and epoxy – contests Avery Bradley’s jumper… without fouling! +4.

3rd, 8:30

The possession begins with Alex Caruso receiving the ball at the right wing as LeBron James sprints into the play. LeBron and Davis set soft double-screens to force a three-man switch between DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie and Wilson Chandler. With Caruso now guarded by Wilson Chandler, he and Anthony Davis perform a simple high pick-and-roll to shed Chandler like excess fur in the summer. As the secondary line of defense, DeAndre Jordan steps forward to stymie Caruso’s attack, so Caruso backtracks and resets the play – and again, Jordan and Chandler switch.

Caruso attacks downhill once more, but the third-straight switch between Chandler and Jordan causes Caruso to panic, jump in the air, and pass without a target. “Cookies!” yells Spencer Dinwiddie as reads the passing lane like a bookworm on summer break. +5.

3rd quarter, 6:03

While the previous highlight was Brooklyn’s best instance of controlled switching mania, the clip above showcases relentless double-teaming from the Nets’ frontcourt. Anthony Davis prepares his attack at the left wing, spinning to his left in preparation for a low-post battle with the more sluggish DeAndre Jordan. Wilson Chandler leaves LeBron James to dig at Davis and nearly pokes away his dribble, forcing Davis to find Danny Green with an outlet pass. Admittedly, this isn’t Joe Harris’s best closeout, and he allows Green to scoot right on by with two choppy dribbles.

Yet again, DeAndre Jordan comes to his teammates’ rescue, doubling Green and forcing the Los Angeles sharpshooter into a well-contested 15-foot clanker. +6.

3rd quarter, 5:06

If you need explanation for this one, I…. don’t really know what to tell ya’. DeAndre Jordan and Joe Harris completely disregard all forms of communication – speaking, hand-movements, a slight nudge, eye-contact, texting, carrier pigeons… – that should occur when working within a switching defense and they, hah, paid for it. -5.

3rd quarter, 1:59

With one last clip to go through, it’s only fitting that we touch upon some on-the-fly execution from fan-favorite Chris Chiozza. Deep breath, bear with me. A whooole lot happens in this possession.

As Markieff Morris receives a pinch-post touch, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope curls around an Anthony Davis-Rajon Rondo stagger screen, engineered to shake KCP’s man, Caris LeVert. At the peak of KCP’s curl, Morris initiates the Laker set with a slick dribble hand-off and subsequent screen on Taurean Prince – likely to free up space for a Caldwell-Pope three. However, the persistent LeVert recovers dutifully and stops KCP in his tracks.

A skip pass from Caldwell-Pope nearly yields an Anthony Davis three. However, Chris Chiozza saves Brooklyn’s collective behind, showing at the arc and inhibiting Davis for a mere millisecond, thereby providing Jarrett Allen with a window of recovery against the Laker big. As the cherry on top, Caris LeVert’s playground reach-around dislodges the ball from Kyle Kuzma for one of Brooklyn’s fourteen forced turnovers. +7.

So, in summation, what does this exercise tell us? Although things started off rocky, Vaughn’s monumental defensive change was ultimately a positive one – at least thus far. Toward the end of quarter three, the Nets cohesion was tangible; Brooklyn’s heady lineup switched and doubled like a well-oiled machine. By my count alone, Jacque Vaughn’s newly implemented strategy yielded more successful possessions (7) than failed ones (5).

Let’s hope basketball comes back soon. I’d love to see if this remains the status quo.