After trailing by as many as 24 points in the first half — and 21 at the half, the Brooklyn Nets mounted a valiant and historic comeback in Phoenix on Tuesday night, defeating the Suns, winners of six in a row. James Harden dropped 38 points while dishing out 11 assists, and role players Jeff Green, Joe Harris and first-time starter Tyler Johnson had 18, 22 and 17 points respectively. But with the Nets falling in such a deep hole by halftime, what changes did Steve Nash make in his return to Phoenix to lead the Nets to improbable victory? Let’s dive in.
Brooklyn adjusts pick and roll coverage
As they’ve done for the majority of the year, the Nets had center DeAndre Jordan drop in pick-and-roll coverage and any other screening action in that first half. The principle around drop coverage is that it positions a big man to defend the basket well and contain the screen-setter, as well as forcing the ball-handler to “settle” for difficult mid-range jump shots with his man contesting from behind. You can see in the clip below how Devin Booker snake-dribbles around DeAndre Ayton’s screen, but DJ gives him just enough space to rise up above a trailing Bruce Brown.
Clearly, that strategy isn’t going to work against Phoenix. The Suns attempt the second fewest amount of shots at the rim (only 26.4 percent) and are top 10 in mid-range frequency, according to Cleaning The Glass. To make matters worse, they lead the league in efficiency in the midrange, drilling those shots at a 49.3 percent clip. You really don’t want to give them those shots.
So, the Nets made the switch (no pun intended) in the second half. For the first time in recent memory, they decided to switch all pick-and-rolls, which led to some funny matchups for Jordan, like Cameron Payne. Payne is able to take advantage of his lack of lateral quickness, but DJ sticks with him just enough to alter the shot.
Fronting the post
Those guard-center switches left Brooklyn with some difficult matchups down low. Guards like Tyler Johnson and Landry Shamet had to deal with Ayton, a former No. 1 overall pick, down low. So, they had to get creative by fronting the post. Fronting the post, or a “full front,” is a complete denial of the ball to the post-up player. The offensive team will counter by lobbing a pass above the (usually) smaller defender, which is why the defense will bring it up from behind.
In this example from last night, Landry Shamet is the one fronting while Jeff Green brings help from behind. The Nets are able to shut down Ayton at the basket and come away with the turnover.
The Nets haven’t played DJ in clutch, fourth quarter minutes for the majority of games this year, so they’ll be facing this sort of size disadvantage consistently unless they somehow find another big. Weakside rotations late in the shot clock, kind of like the one Green has to make here, will be a major component to their defensive success - or lack thereof - going forward.
James Harden and Jeff Green two-man action, including inverted pick-and- roll
During the NBA playoffs in the “bubble” this summer, James Harden and Jeff Green brewed some fantastic chemistry on the court as members of the Rockets. Harden became accustomed to finding Green in the corner when the defense collapsed, and Green shined in a new role of being the small-ball 5. Most of all, former Houston head coach (and current Brooklyn assistant) Mike D’antoni’s added an impressive new wrinkle to the Rockets’ offense: the inverted pick-and-roll.
The inverted pick-and-roll flips the traditional pick-and-roll on its head, where a smaller guard will screen for a bigger ball-handler. Green and Harden adopted this strategy in Houston, using Harden’s gravity as a screener to open up driving lanes for Green towards the basket.
We’ve seen flashes of this action previously in Brooklyn this season, but the Nets abused the two-man game between Green and Harden to close the game in Phoenix on Tuesday.
Nash talked to our Matt Brooks about the action post-game, saying:
“As far as James [Harden] picking for Jeff [Green], we’ve played with that a little bit before, I think we did it a bit in the Golden State game and maybe Sacramento, but when they wanted to keep Ayton out there and they were switching it was an opportunity for us to get Ayton on James [Harden] and try to manipulate the matchups a little bit. So, we stuck with that. In timeouts, I didn’t even draw anything up - for the last couple timeouts I said try to find that switch and be clever in how you can try to maneuver it and get that switch and we’ll space the floor.”
Maneuver and manipulate, the Nets did indeed. Watch Phoenix gladly switch Ayton onto Harden, who can’t keep up with the former MVP for even a second. “The Beard” is able to blow right past him, Mikal Bridges has no option but to help on the drive, and Uncle Jef is left wide open for an easy triple.
Them doing it Tuesday night...
Eventually, the Suns refuse to switch and have Ayton chase Green around Harden’s screen. He can’t keep up laterally with the much more athletic Green, who is able to burst to the rim for an easy lay-in.
After catching slack all season long from fans and members of the media alike, the rookie head coach is starting to prove himself. He’s giving his best players the freedom to go out and create, knowing that they’ll be able to take advantage of any separation they’re given. And he’s got his and Harden’s former head coach to help out.
Nash doesn’t have to be an X’s and O’s wizard by season’s end, but these on-floor adjustments to mount a comeback are promising signs of growth from a first-year head coach.