After every imaginable bump in the road, we’re finally here. The postseason. The minute that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant inked their respective four-year deals, the mountain top of a Finals appearance was always in sight, over a long horizon. Things only intensified when Sean Marks netted James Harden in January to shake the NBA standings like a magnitude 7 earthquake.
To prepare for what
could should be a long road ahead, I’ve prepared (and answered) some of the key questions for the Nets heading into this playoff run. Let’s do this.
Expected playoff rotation?
At first glance, this question may appear tougher than it actually is. In fact, the first time I wrote it out, my mind began to race.
“How could I possibly make rotational cuts with all this DEPTH?” I thought to myself, “It feels like Brooklyn goes 12, 13-deep. Why do I do this to myself with these gruesome hypotheticals?!?!”
Sitting down and actually sketching it out, and things suddenly started to simplify. Let’s begin with the obvious: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden will be in the starting lineup alongside Blake Griffin, who has more than proven himself as a starting-caliber big man who can accentuate the offense with handoffs, rolls to the rim, and the occasional pick-and-pop jumper while switching 1-through-5 on the other end. That puts the starting lineup at:
James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and you’d have to think Joe Harris.
What about Bruce Brown? After all, he’s started 37 games.
Part of my reasoning for suggesting Bruce could start is a) his point-of-attack defense is a breath of fresh air for a group that, um, doesn’t exactly apply the most physical of defense while opponents initiate their sets, and b) I fret over pairing Brown with a fellow non-shooter in Nicolas Claxton on the bench. Though lineups featuring Brown and Clax have graded out incredibly well defensively (a 100.4 defensive rating is utterly absurd), their 107.3 points per 100 possessions on offense would be a bottom-6 offensive rating, which is almost tough to do on a roster THIS loaded up with starbursts of individual offense.
That leaves us with the bench. So it’s either Brown or Harris, Jeff Green, Landry Shamet, and Nicolas Claxton. Either sounds like a lineup perfectly suited for James Harden’s skillset.
For argument’s sake, with Harris, you’d have three guys shooting over 38 percent from three, a blossoming rim-runner in Claxton, plus Harden? Talk about a match made in heaven. Should Brooklyn want to differentiate things in the pick-and-roll for Harden, it can slide Green in as the screener who offers both popping (55th percentile, per Synergy) and rolling (77th percentile, per Synergy) capabilities. Harris and Shamet can also set screens to pop into open space, and given that both players tend to be guarded by weaker defenders, screening for Harden can give the tactical mismatch-hunter tasty options to pick on.
For now, I’d wager that Steve Nash separates 7/11’s minutes from Harden’s to let The Beard get on the board while involving the role players. If Nash does shorten his rotation to eight players, how well Shamet shoots the ball could very well make that decision easier. He’s the swing guy right now, in my eyes.
Most of the discourse surrounding the Nets and winning a championship has been centered on defense. Namely, can the Nets be just average on the defensive side of the ball to squeak by while the offense takes care of the rest? And while I do think there is some truth to that notion — defense being, you know, important — the stat that stuck out to me actually has nothing to do with how the Nets guard the opponent.
Per Stat Muse, the Brooklyn Nets are 31-3 when they score 120 points or more.
That’s right, the Nets win 90 percent of their games when scoring 120 points (for context, the record-breaking 2016 Golden State Warriors won 89 percent of their total games). That sample of scoring 120+ points isn’t exactly minuscule either; it represents 47 percent of Brooklyn’s outcomes this season. (They’re also 9-1 when they’ve scored 130! That’s not that much of a small sample either.)
On the opposite end of the court, the Nets were 9-13 when allowing 120 points or more, which isn’t good but also isn’t as catastrophically bad as some are making it out to be. So despite all the flustering surrounding Brooklyn’s defense, it’s the offense that seems to catapult Brooklyn into practically unbeatable territory.
You can take this a variety of ways. Blake Griffin’s shooting (more on that in a second) could be an important variable for the Nets in the postseason. How Nicolas Claxton fares against the bruisers in the East could also be a significant thing to watch.
However, I choose Bruce Brown as my X-Factor for this Nets playoff run. Here’s the thing about Bruce: Every single time I count him out this year, he finds a way to claw his way back into the rotation. When his floater stopped falling at about the same time that the Nets brought in a cadre of centers (LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and Nicolas Claxton from injury), all of whom took away Brown’s cutting lanes, he made up for the lost time by leading the team in offensive rebounds for, like, a whole dang month. Now that Brooklyn’s center rotation has thinned out a little bit after losing LaMarcus Aldridge to sudden retirement and by shedding the ghost of DeAndre Jordan into the gulag, Brown’s precious areas of open floor space are available for the taking once more.
Bruce is eating up that space willingly, flicking that right-handed floater with regularity on a floor that’s typically spaced by four 36 percent or better three-point shooters.
He’s a proof of concept that spacing doesn’t just equal standing on the perimeter (shoutout to Joe Hulbert); by cutting into driving lanes when opponents leave him alone on the perimeter, he generates shots for himself or his teammates if the defense scrambles to extinguish his signature teardrop move.
We’ll know pretty quickly if those cutting lanes will continue to materialize in the postseason under the duress of playoff defense. There’s a chance that opponents scheme better for Brown, blocking off the paint and thereby forcing the 24-year-old into hoisting threes.
There’s also the chance his off-ball cutting and short-rolling gives the Nets the requisite diversification on offense.
Who else is in the running? Shamet is one possibility. He has more playoff experience and more experience with superstars than someone his age (24) normally would. It’s hard to think of Harris as an X-factor. He is after all the NBA’s best 3-point shooter over the last three and last four years as well as league leader this year. But if Harris gets hot, and we know he can over long stretches, that could make things very difficult for opponents. It’s the old line about who on the Nets will take the last shot? Harris, of course, because he’ll be sooo open.
The fun thing about Brooklyn is that there are three excellent options to pick from. Kyrie Irving could very well throw up 50/40/90 shooting in the playoffs while filling in the holes as Brooklyn’s most versatile offensive player (yeah, I said it). Kevin Durant’s resume speaks for itself. That whole “I can get any shot I want at any time because I’m taller and quicker than 99 percent of the players in the league” thing comes in pretty handy in the postseason.
My pick is James Harden. Doesn’t it just feel like we’re in the Year of The Beard? Harden, more than any other player on this roster, has the most to lose should Brooklyn fall short. A ring could complete his resume and cement his status as one of the greatest to ever play the sport, not that that stuff really matters. He’s completely revamped his game since landing in Brooklyn to suit the needs of a superteam (this feature from Jared Dubin in March on Harden’s adaptation is a must-read).
Moreover, I’d argue that Harden is by far Brooklyn’s most essential player. He’s the engine to most of Brooklyn’s (good) offensive possessions, leading the Nets in assist percentage (43.8 percent) by a considerable margin. He’s also Brooklyn’s most frequent pick-and-roll general, giving his group some needed north-to-south juice on offense. Brooklyn’s rim attempt frequency rises by 1.3 percent when Harden is on the floor, 66th percentile at his position. Across the board, the Nets become a more accurate team while shooting the rock with Harden leading the pack, its effective field goal percentage rising by one percent (68th percentile at Harden’s position).
On a more socioemotional level, Harden has given this group a sense of toughness and pride through his competitive hunger and unshakable confidence. It’s not a coincidence that the Nets have a 29-7 record when Harden plays, a better winning percentage than any of his triumvirate cohorts. The dude is just an unabashed winner.
How do you stop the Nets?
Truthfully, I don’t have a great answer for this — or at least, not one I feel particularly confident about. Two things have stuck out to me, though.
The first would be leaving Blake Griffin open from three.
Look, the percentages may give off the impression that this idea isn’t particularly wise. After all, Griffin’s shooting 40.2 percent on his catch-and-shoot looks this season. What matters, however, is a) how often he’s taking those shots (2.1 per game), and b) whether defenses respect Griffin from the perimeter. As of now, they’re pretty happy with letting Blake fire away. Griffin has this bad habit of passing up shots, only to realize that he probably should’ve taken the original look, and then barfing up a pull-up three (a shot he makes just 28.1 percent of the time).
How defenses guard Blake is something to keep an eye on.
With that out of the way, you guys want some spice?
Stopping Brooklyn’s “Big Three” is going to be an inconceivably difficult, if not impossible task for the world at large. You could trap James Harden in the pick-and-roll, but then you’re giving Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving a 4-on-3 advantage on offense. You could switch everything, but James will happily sniff out your weakest defender and engineer a switch to give himself the isolation. Drop defense is as good as roadkill against the Nets due to their pull-up shooting.
What I would do (oh boy, I can’t believe I’m typing this out) is that with lineups that feature all three of Brooklyn’s stars, I would guard Durant tightly on the catch and force him to put the ball on the floor. Let’s make one thing clear; Durant’s dribbling package and vision for his size are elite, if not spectacular. But if there has been a way to poke holes in his game this season, it’s been the tightness of his handle and his decision-making on the move. His dribble has been picked off more than normal and he’s been somewhat careless when telegraphing passes to open teammates, producing the second-most “bad passes” on the Nets with 56 in total according to PBP Stats. Altogether, these errors have culminated into the highest turnover percentage of Durant’s career at 14.5 percent.
Against Chicago in the very last “Big Three” game of the season, the Bulls made it a clear priority to guard Durant tightly on the perimeter and push the all-time scorer downhill, only to spring a double-team at the very last second to force KD into creating for others. It’s something that just... stood out, something I filed away in my notes should it come up again.
Will this matter? Probably not, but there’s a chance. Against a team as talented as the 2020-2021 Brooklyn Nets, a chance is the best you can hope for.
Expected playoff road?
Given that I’ll be doing individual previews for each of these series (if/when we get there), I won’t go TOO much into detail with my explanations. Just a brief overview, I guess, of how I came to each conclusion.
Round 1 vs. Boston Celtics — Nets in 4
I’ve previewed the upcoming first-round series with our own Alec Sturm here, so go check that out.
Round 2 vs. Milwaukee Bucks — Nets in 7
I’ll be getting into why I hold this philosophy in just a few, but my general rule of thumb to beat the Nets is that the opponent must be able to (somewhat) shut off the water with a better-than-average defense, but more importantly, it has to keep pace with electric scoring. Milwaukee, more than any possible playoff matchup, fits into these parameters.
Simply put, the Bucks can at least enter the conversation with the Nets offensively, finishing the season tied for 4th in offensive rating at 116.5 points per 100 possessions. Conversely, the Bucks possess a top-10 defense that can (finally) toggle between multiple coverages while throwing out the requisite defenders (P.J. Tucker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, etc.) for Brooklyn’s stars. This series will be a rock fight and I expect the lessons learned to fuel Brooklyn on the road ahead. It’ll shape the Nets into a contender — to borrow a few more sports cliches — through sheer strife and struggle.
Round 3 vs. Philadelphia 76ers — Nets in... 5? *ducks*
I’m honestly not sure what it is about Philly. I just have... doubts about their abilities to hang with Brooklyn, despite the obvious added value of possessing a top-2 defense with a plethora of rangy wings (Ben Simmons, Mattise Thybulle, Danny Green, etc.) and an elite rim protector in Joel Embiid. The offense is where I struggle.
Remember the golden rule? A top-10(-ish) offense and defense? Philly sits 13th in offensive rating with the 14th-ranked halfcourt offense, and I worry that’s just not enough. You’d want Philly’s 3-point accuracy to be a little more potent than 37.4 percent (which ranks 11th league-wide; Brooklyn is No. 2 in 3P%) and you’d certainly prefer a more sizable 3-point diet than 30.4 per game (26th in the NBA; Brooklyn ranks 12th).
By the end of the regular season series, Brooklyn figured out some things coverage-wise for Joel Embiid, namely the timing of when to spring traps on the MVP-caliber center. Joel will get his because he’s awesome, of course, and Tobias Harris has been terrific this year; but by this point, Brooklyn will have a nice set of reps for its stars and I expect the offense to be clicking on all cylinders. Philly will need to string together a set of outlier shooting performances to hang around.
Round 4 vs. Los Angeles Lakers — Nets in 6
I’d have better luck picking out a name from a hat than guessing who will come out of the West, but for now, I’m settling on the Lakers (bold, I know). The fun part about a Lakers-Nets matchup is that we know literally nothing about how these teams match up. A meetup between the best defense in the league and a record-breaking offense that put up the highest true shooting percentage in NBA history should be the ultimate test of “defense vs. offense wins championships.”
Right now, I guess I’m picking the offensive side of that billing with the added caveat that this prediction, more than any others, is liable to change as we get more and more data and tape on each of these squads.
So here we are on May 21: 0 down and 16 to go. Hope it lasts that long.