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Hard hats and steel tips! Blue-collar mentality fuels Nets to surprising defensive start

Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

There he was, post-game, Blake Griffin, running through the tunnel, making these odd gestures. What is he mimicking?!?

Well, of course... Hard hats and steel-tipped boots!! Work clothes!! Goin’ to work!! Goin’ blue collar!!

It apparently started a few games back. At least that’s when it got noticed. Whether celebrating post-game or lying prone on the court after taking a charge, Griffin was signaling the Nets new blue collar mentality, particularly on defense. Now, the move has been adopted by the Nets bench, the best team dance since that synchronized line number the team ran in 2018-19 and oh so much better than the best forgotten “cookie dance” of 2013-14.

In talking with Michael Grady the other day, Griffin talked about its origins, then post-game Sunday night, he discussed the application process, saying that yes, Patty Mills was now part of the group and Kevin Durant is a “good prospect!”

It’s not just a dance ... or a club, of course. Through the first nine games of the season (6-3), the Nets have embodied a blue-collar mentality that has fueled their improving defense.

Although many predicted Brooklyn’s defense would be lackluster, an issue, to open the season, the Nets’ underdog mentality mixed with that blue-collar touch has transformed their defense into one of the 10 best in the league, third in field goal defense (41.7) and sixth in overall defensive rating (102.8). There may still be troubles grabbing boards, particularly offensive ones, but who knew, it’s the defense, not their vaunted offense, that’s carrying them early.

“That’s the goal we’ve got to set for ourselves. We’ve shown that we can do it if we’re connected. While we don’t profile as a defensive team on paper, if we’re willing to fight and make the extra effort, we can defend,” said Steve Nash on his team being a high defensive level team. “That’s the goal, is to have an underdog mentality, scrap and claw to make it a priority.”

Nash and the Nets put a heavy emphasis on the defensive end during the teams’ five-day training camp in San Diego and even before that, Sean Marks did the same during free agency. Brooklyn has used the first few games of the season to experiment with rotations. Now, after the players have gained on-court experience with one another, the hard work is starting to show and an identity has risen.

Other than Brooklyn adopting a switching defense on the perimeter, then mixing in drop coverage with their bigs, the fuel to the fire on the defensive end stems from gritty play and plenty of bruises to go around. It’s been a mentality Patty Mills — a player that “ticks” to culture — has watched the team provide that extra boost.

“I think we have from what I have experienced already one of those crowds that we can feed off of when we need to when they are into the game,” said Mills on adopting a scrappy mentality. “That blue-collar mentality of how we play, seems like the crowd enjoys. Being scrappy, loose balls, 50-50 balls, charges, that kind of things, that was one of those times I felt good and got the crowd involved.”

Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

That blue-collar mentality has stemmed from the play of Griffin — who tied for the league lead in charges drawn last season (22) and led the Nets as well (11). The veteran hasn’t missed a step in his physicality and getting his hands dirty defensively. Griffin ranks second in the league in charges drawn per game (0.75) and total charges drawn (six) while being first in charges drawn per 36 (1.21).

“We love that Blake brings it and give us that physicality. He’s also a very intelligent player so he’s taking charges, fighting on the glass and understands our concepts defensively. I thought offensively tonight he helped us with some screening,” said Nash on Griffin’s impact. “He made some threes and some rolls, finishes and just made a lot of hustle plays for us. He’s somebody that we’ve come to rely on and count on. I thought he was great tonight.”

During the Nets 96-90 victory over the Pistons Friday night, Griffin took two charges one that occurred with 43.3 seconds remaining to help seal the game. Afterward, the bench started to celebrate by putting on the hard hats, pulling up the work boots.

“That started with me and Joe [Harris] last season. I don’t even know why. We both took a charge in a game and we’re like blue-collar boys,” Griffin said. “Right before every game, we would be like ‘hey, steel-toe boot, hard hat type of game.’ We do this stupid thing and Patty [Mills] came, took some charges, and submitted his membership. Joe and I have a meeting tomorrow to go over it.”

It’s not just the the PBJ (Patty, Blake and Joe) squad mixing it up. DeAndre’ Bembry has been stellar. Paul Millsap who played with Bembry in Atlanta says he’s noticed a difference between then and now.

“He’s just not giving a s—t,” Millsap said. “He’s playing his game. He’s not worried about anything. He’s out there playing. He’s out there competing, and his skills and his talent is showing up.”

Bembry, whose contract won’t even be fully guaranteed until early January, didn’t dispute Millsap’s assessment, telling Kristian Winfield, “I was overthinking everything. My mind was all over the place.”

As surprising as it may sound, the Nash believes the teams’ defense is ahead of the offense which was the most efficient in NBA history last season. Nash and the Nets want to continue building defensively, but Brooklyn is off on the right foot early.

“I’m proud of the guys. We’re a small team for the most part and we fought. We fought together. We’ve improved defensively. I think our defense is ahead of our offense, which I don’t think anyone was predicting coming into the year,” said Steve Nash on the team. “That makes me happy and I think our guys can feel a sense of pride in each other that they are defending.”

In other words, keep dancing!