I can hear the dismay in your voices already...
Ugh, another film study on defense?! I wanna see Kyrie Irving cross John Collins into oblivion! Where’s Kevin Durant raining threes off a handful of crossovers against poor Kevin Heurter!
Look, guys. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Offense was never going to be a problem with this talented of a group. Even in one of his rare off-nights––a game that began with him shooting just 1-for-10 in the first-half––Kyrie Irving was absolutely prolific with 17 points in the final 12 minutes of Brooklyn’s third win of the season against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. Kevin Durant, meanwhile, was Brooklyn’s ultra-reliable mid-inning reliever––a basketball Adam Ottavino, if I may––keeping his Nets just within distance of the long-range bombin’ Hawks before his co-star put on a miraculous closing show.
You can expect this type of production from Brooklyn’s superstar tandem all regular-season and postseason long. Crazy take, I know. Kevin Durant is looking like Kevin Durant. Kyrie Irving fits like a hand-in-glove with KD. On an off-night, Brooklyn can still outperform the best offense in the league, the Atlanta Hawks, per Cleaning the Glass. The Nets are unstoppable.
But it’s the defense that will make or break Brooklyn’s title chances. Kevin Durant mapped out Brooklyn’s defensive performance as clear as day after Wednesday’s breathtaking battle. Kudos to him for telling us exactly what we should be looking for.
“I felt like we helped too much sometimes,” said Durant. “We emphasize a lot of making sure we stop the ball-handler and helping your guys out. But there are also some times where we could stay at home and let guys play one-on-one defense and let them play two-on-two defense in the pick-and-roll. I think a few times, we might’ve been in a little too much on the help and gave up the three. They hit some threes… that put them up one, put them up two to make it a dogfight. It’s just about each possession, knowing when to help and when to stay home. I think that balance will be good for us going forward.”
(A quick aside, but to give this level of detail when explaining play-by-play after playing 35 hard-fought minutes is pretty special. I was expecting an answer along the lines of “we need to rebound better” or “we have to guard pick-and-rolls better.” Instead, KD gave a Ph.D. lecture on missed rotations and helping one pass away. Pretty cool ... and it was in answer to a NetsDaily question!)
Before we dive deep into a big fluffy pile of film, let’s first get an idea of what a “good” helping possession looks like.
The Atlanta Hawks took a lot of threes on Wednesday against the Nets––46 of them to be precise. Coach Lloyd Pierce has worked with precision to draw up plays for his embarrassment of deep-shooting riches: Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danillo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, John Collins... The list goes on and on.
As the ball makes its way to the corner to Huerter off a nice touch pass, Caris LeVert closes out aggressively––and correctly––to run the Atlanta sharpshooter off the line. Landry Shamet recognizes what could be a precarious situation for the Nets perfectly, leaving his man (Cam Reddish) alone at the opposite wing to rotate over and contest “Red Velvet” into the missed floater.
That right there is a group of players working on a string defensively, recognizing the demands of a possession as it’s thrown their way in increments. Get it? Do we kinda, sorta understand correct “help” on the basketball court?
Great, now for the not-so-good stuff.
Six of Bogdan Bogdanovic’s 7 makes came from three-point land, which, yanno, isn’t an exactly awesome way to win a basketball game. Funny enough, the man whose praises we just sang was one of the many perpetrators in Brooklyn’s over-helping against the Hawks...
But before we break this next set down, kudos to Trae Young. At just 22 years old, he’s already one of the best pick-and-roll manipulators in the entire NBA; the dude flat-out looks like some sick combination of Damian Lillard’s deep-shooting prowess and Chris Paul’s craftiness and general annoyingness (I mean that in a good way). It’s awesome. Or terrible, depending on who you talk to (hint: Twitter is a great place for not-so-glowing reviews).
As Trae weaves into the paint, hitting that signature CP3 “snake dribble” by dribbling back toward the direction of the screen, Landry Shamet “pinches in” or collapses on Young to try and spook the 22-year-old creator. Which, fine. Cool. Buy DeAndre Jordan a second of time as he drags those cemented-soaked feet in the paint (*sigh*... we’ll get there). But also, don’t leave Bogdan Bogdanovic open for the three? You know, one of the top-15 best catch-and-shooters in the entire association? Even Michael Jordan would say Landry Shamet is gambling foolishly here. *Proceeds to be banned from the Spectrum Center for eternity*
Another great example of over-helping below. Taurean Prince is displaced ever-so-slightly by a screen during this Bruno Fernando and Kevin Huerter dribble-handoff. In response, Kyrie Irving rotates over and tosses out a swipe in Huerter’s direction. What results is the ball landing in Bogdan Bogdnavoic’s wiiiiiiide-open hands, only for Caris LeVert to incorrectly “split the difference” by staying home on the weaker of the two shooters (Rajon Rondo instead of Bogdan Bogdanovic... like why?). Three points, Atlanta.
In theory, I understand Irving’s thought process: Protect the paint at all costs by halting Huerter’s drive (something the Nets have frankly done an iffy job at). But giving up a three-ball to the best (Atlanta) shooter on the floor is not exactly ideal. Not to mention, Prince has both Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert roaming around in the paint as help should Huerter scamper his way to the basket, so no need for Irving to converge.
Below, Rajon Rondo, driving left, absolutely laces a skip pass to the weak-side, right into the hands of Solomon Hill as he completes his “rise” from the corner to the wing. A hat-tip to Rondo for the dime, but Taurean Prince doesn’t do his Nets any favors.
Getting lost in Rondo’s magical hora is one thing, but for TP to plant both feet in the paint to unnecessarily “tag” John Collins on the roll is another story. Unless my eyes fool me, Jarrett Allen’s got Collins covered––at least at the time of Rondo’s skip-pass––while Solomon Hill (quietly shooting 44.4% from three!) looks like he’s almost in 14-day quarantine he’s so alone at that right-wing. Again, as KD said earlier: Too. Much. Help.
Next up, Atlanta runs a Rajon Rondo-Bogdan Bogdanovic pick-and-roll (seriously, man... Atlanta is SO funky). Rather than making contact with Taurean Prince (guarding Rondo), Bogdanovic “slips” the screen, receives the bounce pass and takes it to the cup. Aaaaaand here’s where things go awry for the Nets.
Jarrett Allen, the biggest Net on the floor, assumes his shot-swatting duties with glee, puts on his “I’ve blocked LeBron James, have you?” cape, and takes two giant Fro-otsteps toward the baseline to ascend for a devastating rejection. But wait! Kyrie Irving, not exactly known as a shot-denier, also converges onto Bogdanovic, leaving Solomon Hill open in practically the same spot from the clip above. The ball swings and Hill takes his time, assuring that his mechanics are in order, before canning one of Atlanta’s eighteen three-point makes.
And look, to Irving’s credit, he immediately recognizes his error and slaps his hands on his head in disgust after the shot goes down.
Defensive help is a delicate practice, “a balance” as Durant so eloquently put it. It must be tended to daily like flowers in a summer garden, but not over-watered for fear of poisoning the roots. For the Nets, with so little time and experience under their belts, success as a team defense will not happen overnight. Steve Nash’s switching defense is a big ask out the gates; it requires pristine communication, an almost telepathic understanding of where teammates are moving and their general tendencies, strong fundamental knowledge of the scheme itself, and most importantly, experience––experience working within this specific Brooklyn group.
Good for the Nets for lending a helping hand around the Holidays; but as we head into the New Year, maybe a resolution is needed.
Let’s “help” in moderation.
It was incredibly ballsy for Steve Nash to close with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot against Atlanta. But shoot, kudos to Brooklyn’s rookie head coach; TLC did his damn THANG while defending Trae Young down the stretch. I’ve compiled a couple of those defensive possessions below. Away we go!
Up first, TLC pushes and prods his way around a John Collins ultra-high ball-screen to contest Trae’s parking lot-deep three. Next, he does an excellent job bothering Young as he relocates to the corner, all without fouling! And then finally, Luwawu-Cabarrot backtracks magnificently while keeping his hands raised to force a double-dribble from his crunchtime assignment.
This dude TLC was on a two-way contract a year ago at this time. Now he’s guarding All-Star starters. Crazy.