As one Ralph Cifaretto might put it, “a little f***in’ levity”.
That’s what Brooklyn Nets fans have been in desperate search of for two months. A bitter, Sunday loss to the Boston Celtics didn’t bring any. That the Nets played a sound game in Boston against one of the league’s best teams this calendar year was rightfully overshadowed by the loss bookmarking a 3-17 stretch. Contenders don’t have time for moral victories, especially not when there have been so few in the box scores.
But that loss now tastes a lot sweeter, being followed by two distinctly important wins. That 2-1 sounds much better than 3-17, and so does three straight games of good-to-great basketball with a fairly-intact squad. But that’s not why Nets fans woke up smiling on Friday morning. Nets fans searching for a reason to smile, to cheer, to forget about words like ‘ramp-up’ and ‘mandate’, searching for a little f***in’ levity, found it on Thursday night. Although that might be an understatement. They were washed away in a biblical downpour of it, a truly perfect storm that signals at least a temporary end to their dire desert-wandering.
Thursday’s grave-digging of the Philadelphia 76ers felt like a release more than anything, for not just the fans but the players too. It wasn’t the sort of dominating performance last-year’s Nets had, mere reminders of their inevitability when healthy (oops). There is much work and many questions ahead for Brooklyn, and even if all of them are answered, it probably still won’t be enough to crown them as clear-cut favorites before the playoffs begin.
But there’s nothing they could’ve done about that while in-between the lines on Thursday night, nothing they could’ve done while those 48 minutes ticked away, other than give Philadelphia an old-school beatdown, as TNT’s Reggie Miller called it. “Woodshed” made a few appearances as well, and for good reason. Whether it was Kevin Durant (talking all of his talk) and Kyrie Irving (stone-cold expressionlessness) dominating in their typical big-game fashion, or Patty Mills diving on the floor while up 30 in the fourth, the message was clear. But while both individual stardom and pure hustle were major reasons for the blowout win, I wanted to touch on some other areas of Brooklyn’s effort worth noting. After all, there was a lot to notice in their best performance of the season, and perhaps their most satisfying win in a long time.
Bruce Brown Balls Out
Bruce Brown went from pleasant surprise in 2021 to silver lining in 2022. Brooklyn’s free-fall out of the first-seed, and particularly the stretch after James Harden’s departure, coincided with Brown’s re-emergence. But perhaps it’s more ironic than coincidental. Harden’s ingenious passing was the key to unlocking Brown’s roll-oriented offense last season, but this season, Harden may have been more of an impediment. Decreased burst and a lack of an in-between game (combined with the other stars’ lack of availability) turned Brown’s outside shooting from unideal to untenable, and the slow pace of Harden’s offense meant transition opportunities were few and far between for Brown, one of the NBA’s best at getting ahead of the pack:
While there are certainly vital signs of a three-ball for Brown, he is still a non-shooter at heart. Defenders are not moved, literally or figuratively, by the threat of him beyond the arc. And while that can create problems when concocting lineups (as we’ll see), not all non-shooters are built the same. Brown has been playing a much more emboldened style of basketball now that he is a rotation fixture again, which includes ball-skills that occasionally flummox a defense just as much as hot shooting can:
These drives to the rim are not what Brown’s best offensive moments always look like, but they do encapsulate why he has been effective. He reads the floor quite well (which made him such a devastating cutter last season), and has ample athleticism to capitalize on it. This, of course, in addition to an abrasive attitude and defensive intensity that every contender needs out of their seventh or eighth man. Brown was a lonely bright spot in a dark stretch of Nets basketball; it’s only right that Thursday’s win featured some exemplary moments from him.
A Noteworthy Coaching Adjustment
Steve Nash and his team, too, balled out. There are a pair of adjustments he made throughout the contest that I want to highlight as evidence of a well-executed and focused gameplay that his players did well to carry out. Part of this was a complete apathy from both Sixers players and staff that became more apparent as the game wore on, but in any case, Thursday’s beatdown extended beyond the sidelines as well.
The first of these adjustments was on the offensive side. It was nothing too Earth-shattering, but implementing it on the fly had to be pleasant for Nash. As previously mentioned, playing multiple non-shooters has its own web of challenges when constructing lineups. I imagine Nets fans who watched both the 2021 team and large chunks of this season have no trouble understanding this concept. Either way, Philadelphia’s defense seized on this at times in the first half, mainly at the expense of Brown and Andre Drummond, like so:
First, Brown is rolling right into Drummond’s airspace, and then, they both just converge to make Philadelphia’s life a lot easier, victimizing Durant. The solution here wasn’t to play with lineups, and rightfully so. Both Brown and Drummond (despite some foul trouble) were playing well and deserved a run. Fast forward to the second half, and Durant pick-and-roll looked like this:
That’s Brown in the ball-side corner and two potent shooters on the weak-side of the floor, unable to fully commit to ‘tagging’ Drummond’s rolls. Of course, Joel Embiid couldn’t worry too much about Drummond either, what with Durant a threat to pull-up from anywhere. This simple adjustment wasn’t anything too special, but the Nets made sure to leave no ‘i’ undotted and no ‘t’ uncrossed in Philly.
Ignoring Mattise Thybulle
...was the other main adjustment I noticed. And it wasn’t really an adjustment so much as a commitment. It’s not a secret that Thybulle is not just a non-shooter, but nearly a complete offensive non-entity, so much so that it impacts his NBA All-Defense case, what with Doc Rivers’ hesitancy to leave him on the floor for extended minutes. This was evident at moments in the first half, such as here, when the Nets freely double Harden and Durant disregards Thybulle on the baseline to pick up Tobias Harris rolling to the basket:
But this disrespectful attitude was ratcheted up in the second half, and the Sixers couldn’t figure out a counter. Seth Curry, who had an outstanding night of his own, was matched up with Thybulle. Watch him play free safety instead of sticking to his assignment on these plays, and how that muddies up the geometry of the court for Philadelphia:
Thybulle’s presence on the court gave the Nets an out, a corner they could keep cutting with no repercussions to more effectively guard the Sixers. Philly’s life may have been easier had anybody other than Embiid produced, offensively, but in a potential playoff matchup, the Thybulle question looms large.
The Clax Attack
I have to end with some words on Nic Claxton. It seems we’re stuck in a tantalizing cycle with the third-year big where he produces and seems like he’s taking a leap before suffering an injury or a debilitating illness that makes us wonder if that progress was merely a mirage. Nonetheless, it never gets any less exciting to watch him play well. After all, the Nets have nobody else quite like him. And Thursday’s win may have been the best game of his career, considering the stakes and how he responded.
It started offensively, where his swing skill has always lain: Is he going to be effective in the short roll, or are teams going to be able to take him out of the game? There is enough data and pattern repetition at this point to suggest that all he needs is a sense of rhythm. Considering the low number of games he’s played in three seasons, missing any action has a pronounced short-term effect on his output. The ability is still there, though. We saw this mini-leap earlier this season, around the turn of the new year. But damn is it nice to see it again! Sure, you’d like him to at least see Kyrie on the weak-side in that last clip, but finishing with poise over a smaller defender is fine too:
Offensive competence, not domination, is all Claxton needs to shine on the defensive end, where he’ll butter most of his bread. And that he did on Thursday night. It wasn’t just a few standout possessions holding his own vs. Embiid, who didn’t really go at him too much, although, don’t get me wrong, those were sights for sore eyes. Rather, it was vintage Claxton that caused more damage in Philly. You know what that looks like, a mess of limbs sprawling around the court, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting ball-handlers. These plays aren’t just your textbook rotations, either, they’re instinctual from Claxton:
Claxton was just one of many (every?) Net who played well. But considering the opponent and his ups and downs this season, Claxton’s success might have been the most pleasant to see on a night that wasn’t lacking for sources of happiness.
Thursday’s win was just one game, the pundits (and players) keep telling us, but if there was going to be a season-defining victory that ended a bleaker stretch than any Nets fan imagined possible at the start of this year, that would’ve been it. In a season full of unwanted moral victories, that was one worth celebrating. Harden and the Sixers are firmly on that side, Ben Simmons and the Nets are now firmly on this side, and Brooklyn couldn’t be happier about it.