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FILM STUDY: Brooklyn Nets have a closing problem

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Golden State Warriors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

We’ve reached a strange inflection point in this Brooklyn Nets season.

No matter the path these Nets pick in this “choose your own adventure” finale to the season, its outcome will feel inherently dissatisfying; Brooklyn will either stumble into the postseason and enjoy a swift complimentary wax-on, wax-off Buck(tt)-kicking (cue the boos now, please), or finish just short of the playoffs in year one of the Kyrie Irving/Kevin Durant era. Sure, in theory, a mid-to-late lottery pick could provide some intriguing trade fodder, but I’m dubious that a middling pick from a such weak draft could greatly move the needle in potential negotiations (unless, of course, the Nets jump into the top-5 by virtue of ping pong ball juju. See: the 2019 Los Angeles Lakers). More than likely, no matter what avenue this never-ending season meanders down, we’ll all be huddled up anxiously awaiting the future. Nothing has changed…

It’s all about next season. © 2019-2020 Brooklyn Nets.

It doesn’t help that these helpless musings of a future that is still so very far away have been compounded by some truly horrific basketball in our present day. With Kyrie Irving capital-D done for the season, the Nets lost their superstar point guard, their face to the franchise, their leader, but most of all, their closer. And boy, the Nets sure could use one of those just judging by this recent stretch.

Since February 20th, four of Brooklyn’s six games have been verrry close, that is, within five points or less with five minutes to spare in the fourth (NBA stats refers to this as “the clutch.”). Of these four zip lock-tight crunchtime battles, Brooklyn has come out victorious precisely… zero times. That 0-4 record ranks dead-last in the league during this span.

Most infamous of these recent catastrophes was Saturday’s go-ahead blunder against the Miami Heat. To set the table, let’s backtrack to the possession before Spencer Dinwiddie hurled a pass that, um … well, let’s just save that for later.

So alas, here we are with 13 seconds remaining and the Heat up 114-110. With Spencer Dinwiddie inbounding the ball, his other four teammates diverge into a sprawling pattern of screens and back-cuts; Caris LeVert fakes a screen for Joe Harris at the weakside elbow before jutting toward the opposite corner as a “decoy”; Taurean Prince cuts toward the basket to set a strongside pin-down at the elbow for Wilson Chandler, who creatively uses that spacing to open the floor for Joe Harris with a flare screen; Harris cuts hard the second Chandler’s screen makes contact with Kendrick Nunn, leading to a wide-open dead-eye three-pointer to cut Miami’s lead to one.

This, my friends, is what it looks like when one of Kenny Aktinson’s famous ATOs is run to perfection. Like a purring basketball motor – with Net players screening for each other in succession like a row of spinning gears – Atkinson’s out-of-bounds Frankenstein monster wreaks havoc on South Beach in its entirety.

One Jimmy Butler made free throw later and it was Brooklyn’s time to shine once more. An inbound to Spencer Dinwiddie triggers the action: Joe Harris curls around a stagger screen (courtesy of Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler) from the weakside baseline to the top of the key. At the precipice of Harris’ movement, Miami switches fluidly to smother Brooklyn’s sharp-shooter – so much so that it’s worth pondering if Miami scoped out every aspect of Kenny Atkinson’s crunch-time game plan, but I digress...

So, Spencer Dinwiddie starts to improvise, preparing his mind, body and soul for one of his career-defining downhill drives. Yet again, Miami’s defense thinks two steps ahead: All-Star center Bam Adebayo stunts in Dinwiddie’s general direction, spooking Brooklyn’s floor general so that he picks up his dribble and… well… he does this:

Is Wilson Chandler, a 27.3 percent non-corner three-point shooter open for a reason? Yeah, probably. But let’s not glance over this horrendous pass that nearly decapitated the first two rows of Miami lifers. This was the Reggie Miller choke.gif personified. There’s no other way to dice it up and spin it.

More end of game madness, this time in the hometown Barclays arena. After coughing up a 15-point lead (sigh…) to the offensively-hapless Orlando Magic, the Nets were left with one last opportunity. Kenny Atkinson’s half-court set greatly resembles the first clip from above: Spencer Dinwiddie, in place of Caris LeVert, sprints toward the strongside corner after Wilson Chandler nudges his defender (Markelle Fultz) with healthy full-bodied screen. Chandler then maneuvers toward the weakside block to set a pindown for Joe Harris, which Aaron Gordon unfortunately sniffs out with acute awareness. In order to avoid the violation, Caris LeVert is forced to inbound the ball to the still-smothered Joe Harris. Harris dribbles left into a Aaron Gordon-Evan Fournier double-team. He hands it off to LeVert, who attempts to isolate against Aaron Gordon – the tentpole to Orlando’s defensive success – but comes up unsuccessful. One more swing to Taurean Prince, who like his Nets brethren, does little to create separation and we’re left with this; a fadeaway, one-footed three-pointer with time expiring. Not great.

So, what were the alternatives? Well, for starters, LeVert missed Dinwiddie in the corner early. While initiating offense near the sideline doesn’t exactly spark flexibility, it does place the ball in the hands of Brooklyn’s best one-on-one creator. Plus, with Brooklyn triggering the possession from an uncommon area of the floor, perhaps the radical approach to crunch-time execution could have greatly interrupted Orlando’s impeccable attention to detail, thereby giving Harris some room to breathe for a sweeping unhindered curl. Who knows. We’re acting within a world of hypotheticals and whimsical fantasy. What is rather concrete and undeniable is that Orlando sniffed out every whiff of Kenny Atkinson’s half-court planning, fair and square.

Brooklyn’s closing possession versus the Wizards was a bit more aesthetically speaking, at least in terms of pristine execution. Some atypical “weave” offense from Kenny Atkinson, as all three of Garrett Temple, Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince intersect in a crisscross pattern of off-ball exploration – engineered, by the way, to unnerve Washington’s unfocused 29th ranked defense. Things get a little sloppy when Davis Bertans unexpectedly switches onto Bradley Beal’s man, Caris LeVert, thereby stopping the Nets shooting guard dead in his energetic tracks.

At this point, reading the situation, Spencer Dinwiddie fakes a screen for his suddenly flummoxed friend Caris – and again, Bertans expertly switches. Now with Bertans standing between him and the basket, preferably speaking, this should be “Downhill Dinwiddie’s” opportune time to attack early against his slower, gawkier defender. Instead, Dinwiddie chooses to fake a handoff to Joe Harris, giving Bertans and Isaac Bonga – Washington’s best defender according to defensive rating – just enough time to switch. A small but notable mistake.

Kudos to Din: He recovers and sling-shots the rangy Bonga into the paint like an Interstellar spacecraft, giving the 26-year-old floor general plenty of space to launch a step-back three-pointer that unfortunately just doesn’t fall.

(Dinwiddie has yet to find his pot of gold with these types of shots this season, canning just 30 percent of his step-back threes. Still, forget the numbers for a second, an open go-ahead look is always hard to come by. Ah, well.)

If y’all can stomach it, we’ve got one more clip to go through. After a tumultuous crunch-time versus the Ben Simmons-less Philadelphia 76ers – in which neither team could gain much of an advantage whatsoever – the Nets were gifted a monumental opportunity with 3 seconds left in regulation. Josh Richardson picked up Spencer Dinwiddie near midcourt – too far up the speedy Brooklyn guard’s jersey, might I add – allowing for Spence to jab his way into an opening for that ferocious first step.

With Richardson now on his hip, Dinwiddie forces Joel Embiid to rotate over with hopes of stifling his drive. Suddenly stuck with the decision of either lofting a low percentage floater or flipping a pass to Embiid’s man (Wilson Chandler), Dinwiddie chooses correctly… However, there’s a caveat: His pass is a beat too slow and well behind Chandler’s body, resulting in an emphatic game-saving block from Philly’s franchise player.

Had Dinwiddie flung that baby closer to Philly’s basket, Chandler could have fully committed to the up-and-under finish off glass (or even squeezed in a layup underneath Embiid’s arms). However, such is life in this world of Nets basketball – a frustrating existence of shouldas, woluldas and couldas – and Brooklyn would go on to fall short in overtime for the first of five losses in six games.

Eventually, these late-game mishaps and errant decisions will be corrected by the star power of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Put Irving in Spencer Dinwiddie’s place as the go-to performer and expect a foray of brilliant one-on-one magnum opuses. Kevin Durant, meanwhile, can fulfill Joe Harris’ role as the active cutter and – no big deal – he too comes equipped with all-time isolation mastery should a crunch-time set get stuck in the mud.

These last 22 games represent the ideal time for Kenny Atkinson to hone his craft as a brainy tactician before the big title run. Elements of his end-game schemes are wholeheartedly functional – the sweeping curls paired with double screens, the weave offense in place to frustrate opposing defenses, the low-post pindowns to engineer favorable switches; now it’s about combining, altering and perhaps even staggering these sets accordingly to avoid predictability. All the while, Brooklyn’s current cast of players should focus on perfecting these crunch-time actions in anticipation for appeasing the stars.

As for the fans, a dosage of patience is prescribed to each and every one of you in the meantime. This purgatory of mediocrity will all be over soon.