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FILM STUDY: The ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ Brooklyn Nets defense strikes again

Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

I’m sure most of you have heard the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” to describe things that toggle between “good” and “bad” at a moment’s notice. But do you know the full origin story? The full tale from Dr. Robert Louis Stevenson? A moment of transparency: I sure didn’t. Allow me to share a brief synopsis.

It begins with a lawyer, Mr. Gabriel John Utterson, learning of a story that involves one of his clients, Dr. Henry Jekyll. According to that story, a man named Mr. Edward Hyde, a truly reprehensible and violent man, tramples a small girl in the streets. To avoid legal repercussions, he agrees to pay off the girl’s family with a check from someone with the means to afford such an unlawful transaction. Yup, you guessed it. That man was Dr. Jekyll.

Utterson, fearing that his client was being held captive by some sort of blackmail, heads to Jekyll’s estate, only to be turned away by the attendants who tell Mr. Utterson that they serve Mr. Hyde under Dr. Jekyll’s orders. Creepy, huh?

Time passes and yet another innocent person is beaten down by Mr. Hyde. With probable cause and multiple eyewitness testimonies, Utterson and the authorities return to Jekyll’s home where they meet with the doctor himself, who hands the group a letter from Mr. Hyde. Utterson, who is quite familiar with Dr. Jekyll’s handwriting after years of handling his legal documents, quickly notices that Hyde’s penmanship is strikingly similar to his client’s.

The story concludes when Utterson is personally called to Jekyll’s home by the butler, Poole, who tells Utterson that he thinks Hyde has murdered Dr. Jekyll. Together, they break into Jekyll’s lab only to find that Hyde is the one that has been murdered, and next to him is a series of letters from Dr. Jekyll. These letters reveal that an experimental potion developed by Dr. Jekyll to separate his “good” and “bad” traits, had gotten out of hand and created his evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. That villainous personality grew more and more powerful, to the point that Jekyll felt the only solution was to take his own life––and subsequently kill the violent beast he had created.

A cool story, right? Now look, as fun as it is to overview some classic literature, I’m assuming that’s not exactly why many of you clicked on this article. This is a sports blog, after all.

So here’s the hook ... line, and sinker: This weekend, the Brooklyn Nets’ defense, fruitful as always, provided hoops fans with a hardwood adaptation of that famous “Jekyll and Hyde” tale.

A Dr. Jekyll performance in OKC

On Friday, the Brooklyn Nets had perhaps one of the most intriguing defensive performances to date in their young season. Rather than responding and reacting to the opposition’s offensive outbursts, Brooklyn decided they would be the ones setting the terms of engagement; the Nets were the tone-setters.

Steve Nash’s squad strayed away from some of the more conservative philosophies that had defined the team for most of the season. The drop coverage that typically housed the not-exactly-perimeter-savvy DeAndre Jordan was ixnayed early after a hot start from Thunder stretch-center Al Horford.

In came a variety of changes: aggressive blitzes on pick-and-rolls, hard rotations under the basket to cover for the openings that are produced by hard traps, and even a hint of zone. The results weren’t perfect, obviously, as allowing 128 points isn’t exactly ideal. But the change of plan on defense was a sign from the coaching staff that perhaps the group was feeling a bit more comfortable with the base defense, to the degree that the Nets were spreading their wings a little and just trying things.

We’re getting more solid with our game plan,” Nash said after the 147-125 victory in Oklahoma City. “We’re mixing in a few things, but really we’re just trying to refine what we were previously. It’s not a whole lot of change. We blitzed a little bit tonight, we denied a little bit tonight, we even ran a possession of zone.”

A great example of Brooklyn’s tenacious coverage: After Mike Muscala sets a “drag screen” in transition for Shai Gilgeous-Alexader, Reggie Perry––instead of tracking Muscala on the roll––works in tandem with Landry Shamet to spring atop Gilgeous-Alexander like a venus fly trap cornering a wandering housefly. SNAP! Brooklyn’s blitz catches the Thunder star by surprise, and he panics by sliding a feeble bounce pass to Muscala, which quickly gets picked off by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.

“We’re aligning our strengths and weaknesses and things that we can get better at,” James Harden explained post-game. “And every game is going to be different. Tonight, Shai had it going and we knew Al (Horford) had it going, so we wanted to get the basketball out of those guys' hands and make someone else make the play. From the beginning of the game, we did that... Coaches are doing an unbelievable job of switching up over the course of the game and showing opposing teams different looks.”

A great example of that, fittingly with both of SGA and Horford involved: Oklahoma City’s two most prominent offensive players connect for a side pick-and-roll to ideally give Gilgeous-Alexander a driving lane down center-field, and Brooklyn responds by sending two to the ball with Bruce Brown and DeAndre Jordan. Naturally, this leaves Horford wide-open for the catch-and-go.

Here’s where it gets fun; the split-second Joe Harris sees his teammates blitz the ball-handler, he knows the rolling big, Horford, will be open for the lay-in at the cup. So, as Brooklyn’s “low man,” he rotates away from the weakside corner shooter (Lu Dort) to position himself underneath the basket before Horford even grasps the rock on the catch. By the time Horford elevates for the suddenly-not-so-easy-two, Harris is positioned perfectly for the denial, his hands raised, his feet set, his balance and core aligned to take a body blow from the 34-year-old center. Harris’ center of gravity causes Horford to change positions mid-air and force up a hanging prayer of a layup. They call him “Beefy Joe” for a reason, you know.

Nash dug into his bag of tricks and busted out just the fourth total possession of zone defense midway through the first quarter. Did that brief period of 2-3 experimentation go particularly well? I mean, no. But with a center that offers a bit more oomph than DeAndre Jordan and his tar and concrete-soaked shoes, perhaps it’s a concept worth revisiting should Brooklyn hit the 7-foot goldmine in the buyout market. What mattered, though, was that Brooklyn felt secure enough to stray outside the comfort zone of that base switching scheme––at least for just one possession. It was a sign of self-assurance.

Mr. Hyde rears his cruel head in the nation’s capital

“The most important thing is individual pride,” said a solemn Steve Nash after the soul-crushing 149-146 loss against the 4-12 Washington Wizards. “Making every possession count and mean something. I think too many possessions didn’t mean anything. We’ve gotta sit down in our stance, guard, and make it difficult. I think more than anything, it’s just a little bit of pride and a little bit of desperation to guard the ball and keep them out of the paint.”

After what was a rather solid outing on Friday, full of scheme improvisations and brand new wrinkles, Brooklyn returned to what had defined a majority of the 2020-2021 season on Sunday. Begrudgingly, we all witnessed an underwhelming defensive whole comprised of timid and sometimes disinterested players.

Nash’s argument, cliches and all, nailed one thing: The Nets were unwilling to get into strong defensive positioning, allowing for the opposition to zip on by in transition or after a ball-screen.

Below, Landry Shamet picks up Russell Westbrook, shooting just 33.3% from three prior to Sunday’s game, at the top of the key (instead sagging off), and he allows the UCLA product to crossover to his dominant right hand. Brooklyn was playing without a center to enhance the five-out offense by utilizing Jeff Green as the makeshift 5. Consequently, on the other end of the floor, Brooklyn was essentially without a semblance of rim protection. If anything, with this particular lineup, it was Kevin Durant––the tallest Net on the floor––who was assigned with any and all shot-swatting duties.

After Westbrook waltzes by Shamet without much trouble at all, Kevin Durant skies for the block... a half-second late. Brooklyn’s lead is cut to just four points.

If the switching defense was “working on a string” on Friday, then Sunday’s performance was the equivalent of working on a frayed rope after 25 hard years at sea. The Nets, truthfully, looked like they had never played together before.

Below, Mo Wagner streaks toward the right elbow to set a quick pin-down for Washington sharpshooter Davis Bertans. Brooklyn, as they had been all game, elects to switch the off-ball screen, with Jeff Green picking up Bertans and denying the handoff and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot grabbing Wagner. Here’s the problem: TLC doesn’t realize that he and Green are switching this action until it’s too late, and you’ll see his eyes continue to track Bertans’ movement even after Wagner “slips” his screen and beelines it for the hoop.

We’re 20 games into the season; Brooklyn should not be this caught off guard when an opponent chooses to slip a screen as this is the best way to combat a switching defense, which the Nets have been running all season.

I’d like to backtrack to the story of Jekyll & Hyde before closing this thing out. The key part––and perhaps my favorite element––of Stevenson’s tale, is when Utterson takes note of the handwriting similarities between Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. I find myself pondering the same sort of hypotheticals when watching Nets games. How could the same team, with the same integral pieces that runs the same scheme provide such starkly different performances on a night-to-night basis?

To be truthful, I think we’ll learn a lot about who these Nets really are when the LA Clippers come to town. With an offense that is humming like the sweet songbirds during the first months of spring, Tyronn Lue has got his group performing with a vastly improved sense of pride to the tune of the best offense in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass. Will the Dr. Jekyll Nets exhibit mastery of the base scheme, with accents of impromptu creativity to catch the opposition off guard? Or will the Nets be overtaken by their worst tendencies and fall flat on their faces with nowhere to Hyde?