The two-game mini-series against the Milwaukee Bucks proved one thing: Without James Harden, it’s going to be tough for the Brooklyn Nets to face off against other elites. Sure, Kevin Durant dropped 74 combined points against Milwaukee. Sweet. But Brooklyn’s offensive rating of 112.1 ranked just 16th in the league over the two-game span; the Bucks defense did its part, limiting the airspace for Brooklyn’s shooters while pushing and prodding Net stars into disadvantageous shots.
On Brooklyn’s side of things, its patented pick-and-roll didn’t provide its normal advantages. The Nets failed to coerce very many mismatches without its certified hunter, James Harden, waiting for the perfect prey to spring a series of crossovers on. To add to that, Brooklyn’s assist totals practically vanished into nothingness without a formal table-setter performing center stage — someone who can keep the bigs involved while also dishing flashy skip-passes to corner shooters with perfect timing. Brooklyn’s two-game average of 19.5 assists per game ranked just 29th in the league over that duration. Normally, the Nets sit at spot number 8 in average assists. Quite the dropoff indeed.
With the pick-and-roll limited, the transition game sometimes jumbled, and the halfcourt suddenly clogged with Freakish arms and pickpocketing (Jrue) Holiday hands, the Nets were forced to turn to a different form of offensive attack, one that perhaps slides a bit under the radar for Brooklyn when engineering halfcourt hysteria.
The Nets went handoff-hunting in Milwaukee, necessitating the talents of Blake Griffin to shatter the icy hold of the Bucks’ swarming defense.
Unbeknownst to many, Brooklyn’s offense via handoffs ranks second in the league according to points per possession, per Synergy Sports. Handoffs are, in fact, Brooklyn’s third-most reliable form of scoring just behind isolations and post-ups.
Brooklyn didn’t get as much offense from handoffs in the first of the two Bucks games, aside from when Blake Griffin stepped in for the entire fourth quarter. The drop off in handoff productivity can be attributed to, well, Blake Griffin only seeing floor time during the final period, getting just 6 total minutes in the first three-quarters of the game according to PopcornMachine.
When the Nets did dip their toes into the well of Griffin handoffs, good things happened. Here, Griffin beckons Landry Shamet to curl toward the top of the key for a handoff, sets a firm screen on Donte DiVincenzo, and watches his teammate rise up for a gorgeous one-dribble three-pointer. Why was this play so effective? Well, Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez is in a “drop” coverage, meaning that he’s hanging back in the paint to deter drives should a Nets player dare to enter his chambers in search of painted-area prosperity. Instead, Shamet does his treasure hunting from outside Lopez’s lagoon for that quick-strike pull-up three.
30 seconds later and the Nets liked what they saw, once again going back to the spoils of Griffin’s handoff magic. This time, Brooklyn adds a Landry Shamet “pindown” screen to the mix for Joe Harris, who streaks off that screen before receiving the handoff from Blake Griffin. This set is known as “Miami,” and it can simply be remembered as a dribble-handoff combined with an off-ball screen (typically, a pindown screen). Once again, the lumbering Lopez is in a drop coverage to halt attackers that slalom toward the rim, so Joe Harris happily rises up for the three-ball, though Khris Middleton does a pretty nice job recovering back into the play to get a hand in Harris’ face.
(This was a trend from Milwaukee — terrific scrambling and recovery speed — and I’ll discuss that later this week in a video.)
Two nights later, the Nets went deeper into their proverbial bag of handoff tricks by A) increasing Blake Griffin’s playing time by 10 total minutes from 18 to 28; and B) by actually, you know, running more handoff plays.
Griffin’s handoffs were the key to staying afloat in the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant-less minutes that, for some reason, occurred during the opening minutes of the fourth quarter on Tuesday (Steve Nash did not have his best two-day stand in Milwaukee, but that’s for a different day). Blake and newcomer Mike James (on his second 10-day contract) showcased immediate familiarity in the two-man game when given an empty side of the floor.
I’ll walk you through it.
Blake sets a screen on Donte DiVincenzo to allow the 30-year-old point guard, James, to attack from the left side of the floor with hopes of crossing to his dominant right hand. DiVincenzo recovers brilliantly to take away Mike’s “snake dribble” opportunity, so James simply regroups and resets up top to Blake Griffin. From there, the two vets are in improvisation mode; James receives the handoff, slices into the paint, and then whips a no-look kick-out pass over his head to Blake, who has now relocated to the corner.
Things got even funkier when Griffin’s handoffs joined forces with none other than Kevin Durant, culminating into an ultra-rad dual-playmaking-forward two-man game.
(Seriously, how weird is it to watch a near-seven footer and a freakin’ center dribble, move about the floor like guards, and set screens for one another to warp the defense without the help of any additional playmakers? It’s truly crazy how far basketball has progressed.)
Running dribble-handoffs with Durant is particularly effective because the defense ABSOLUTELY PANICS when he grabs the rock while traversing into open space. KD is one of the best relocation specialists in the league, shooting 55.1 percent on zero-dribble shots and 56.9 percent on one-dribble shots, so when he gets the ball while pealing off a screen as he does here with Blake Griffin, he forces the screener’s defender (Bobby Portis) to step up and deter the midrange look. From there, Griffin has an open roll to the rim with P.J. Tucker now on his backside, and Blake finishes strong through a solid Brook Lopez weakside rotation and contest.
It’s the same concept next quarter, though this time Durant fakes toward the rim only to cut back toward Griffin’s handoff to basically cross-up Giannis Antetokounmpo off-ball. This forces Brook Lopez to jump out toward Durant, and the Bucks are toasted and served with butter as Blake Griffin screens and rolls to the rim.
Now you may be saying: “Wait, hold your horses. He didn’t explain the headline! Why DID the Nets go handoff hunting in Milwaukee? Wasn’t that the whole point of this article??!”
Well, you astute reader, you, to answer your fantastic question; The Nets went a-searching for handoffs in the great midwest for a couple of reasons. For one, the Nets wanted to take advantage of Milwaukee’s scheme by involving their not-so-mobile center, Brook Lopez, to create pull-up shots.
More importantly, running a series of dribble-handoffs allowed the Nets to involve its best passer on the floor. Not the point guard, Kyrie Irving. Not the best player, Kevin Durant. No, Blake Griffin, the Nets’ most consistent engine of playmaking creativity until James Harden returns to the fold. Dribble-handoffs have long been Griffin’s preferred avenue of creating a defensive frenzy.
You’ve gotta hand it to him. It’s pretty clear why.