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FILM STUDY: 5 things to watch for as the Nets wrap-up their season

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at New York Knicks Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we’re here.

With the regular season coming to a close, the Brooklyn Nets have reached the End Game. It’s time to do or die. Will Brooklyn fulfill its destiny as an Eastern Conference juggernaut? Or will the Nets fall short and waste yet another year of Kevin Durant’s prime?

While these questions cannot be answered just yet—a dangerously uphill playoff battle will surely take care of that—for now, it’s best to analyze the data and take a look at a couple of key trends as the Nets conclude their turbulent year.

The Nets need more from Kyrie Irving

By the numbers, Kyrie Irving has had a good season. 27.2 points on 46/41/92 splits is certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially when highlighted by a 50- and a 60-piece in the same week.

However, upon being reinstated full-time, Irving’s production has tapered off. Since March 26, Kyrie’s shooting just 38% from the field, 36% from three, and 39% from two-point range. Glass half-full, he’s just simply missing shots he normally makes—36% from floater range, 25% from the midrange, and 31% from the corners. Glass half-empty? He’s getting to the rim at a career-low rate (on 15% of his offensive possessions) on the season, and since becoming full-time, he’s seen his rim frequency dip even further to just 11%.

Regularly, he’ll come off pick-and-rolls and burp up long two-pointers regardless of where the defense is situated. The first clip is particularly glaring; Irving gets a step on Clint Capela yet settles for a 10-foot leaning bank shot.

Or here, he’s served up a delicious mismatch against Capela only to cough up a stop-and-pop long-two after creating the initial advantage.

Perhaps it’s due to tired legs with his suddenly increased workload, or maybe he’s just saving himself for the postseason. But regardless, the Nets—already one of the four worst teams in the league since the James Harden trade at generating rim pressure —are going to need his downhill voracity to ascend to their full heights. You know, go to the rim more.

On defense, too...

Look, this column wasn’t purely devised to pile on Kyrie. The situation he’s attempting to reacclimate himself into is, well, unprecedented. Playing once (maybe twice) a week to now all-the-freaking-time is certainly demanding—especially during a period of the season where most teams are well-oiled and fully conditioned, revving up their engines for playoff time.

But man, the dude’s defense. Woo boy.

While Irving is, let’s just say, figuring things out offensively, it’s pretty undeniable he’s taking plays off to conserve energy on the other end.

Simply put, Irving’s been a blow-by guy when attacked in semi-transition or in isolation. He’s been prone to defending with his hands rather than his feet, reaching in for ill-advised steals instead of standing up strong and shuffling to stifle rim attacks. At many points, it’ll appear as if he’s doing his own rendition of ‘James Harden vs. the Sacramento Kings when guarding one-on-ones.

His screen navigation has also left a lot to be desired. He’s looked the part of a sailor lost at sea when faced with opposing pick-and-rolls, appearing almost map-less while deciding whether to go over or under screens. In the first clip from the video below, he gets snared on Clint Capela’s fairly visible screen. The second clip shows Irving inexplicably going under a screen against Jrue Holiday, who almost immediately displays why doing so against a player shooting 42% on uncontested threes is a baaaad idea. (Also: notice Kevin Durant throw up his hands in frustration at the very end. Eek!).

Even Irving’s help positioning has been, um, not all that helpful.

Overhelping has been Brooklyn’s cardinal sin throughout the entirety of the season, and Irving has thoroughly upheld that not-so-golden standard.

In the first clip from the video below, Irving pinches in at the nail (or middle of the free-throw line) to assist Andre Drummond and stifle Trae Young’s driving lane; but in doing so, he loses his man, De’Andre Hunter, and gives him an open corridor for the short-range jumper.

The second clip is even more egregious. Irving inexplicably steps into the paint to slow Trae Young even with Kevin Durant manning the dunker spot and James Johnson rotating down as the “low man.” Note: This is not Irving’s rotation to make (if anything, it’s Johnson’s), especially when it comes at the expense of leaving Danilo Gallinari’s 37% three-point accuracy open. Not good!

Overall, the Nets are +2.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Irving off the floor. Granted, Irving’s always been a flip-the-switch guy defensively, able to upshift gears when it matters. James Harden, ha, knows this all too well from their recent meetup humiliation.

But still, even just a slight uptick in defensive intensity would be welcomed with open arms. The Nets are in the freaking play-in tournament! Things are dire!

Brooklyn is (still) a little light in playmaking

By trading away James Harden, Brooklyn gave up their third-most used player, most frequent pick-and-roll creator, and most diligent playmaker with a team-high 10.2 assists per game. Filling that creation void is at the top of Brooklyn’s to-do list as we head into the postseason.

Steve Nash’s solution, thus far, has been to shuffle those responsibilities into the lap of Kevin Durant, and for good reason! Durant’s 1.08 points per 100 possessions as a pick-and-roll creator ranks within the 92nd percentile, per Synergy Statistics.

Yet, we’ve also seen some of PG KD’s limitations during the month of April. Let’s start with the good: Since the Harden trade, Durant has assisted on 27.7% of his teammates' baskets, which ranks within the 97th percentile at his position. Yowzah! He’s also turned the ball over on 14.8% of his total offensive possessions, 12th percentile at his position... Owzah! (Is that a word?).

Durant’s creativity as a pick-and-roll passer comes and goes. Sure, he’ll have some seriously sterling moments making reads after ripping off a screen (that nutmeg bounce pass to Nic Claxton in the first clip below is suh-weeeeet!), but he’ll balance out those moments with instances of indecision and tardiness.

In the second clip below, he’s a beat late on this bounce pass to Andre Drummond rolling down the empty side of the court.

Sloppiness and a general lack of focus can plague Durant as a passer (clip 1 below); he’ll straight-up telegraph his passes if a dependable option doesn’t immediately come available (clip 2); accuracy is not always his strong suit (clip 3).

Overall, Durant’s 4.3 turnovers per game since the trade deadline ranks second in the entire NBA behind only Luka Doncic—this number would also clock in as by far a career-high for KD if it held consistent over the full course of a season.

One option could be to curtail some of Durant's (and Irving’s) pick-and-roll reps in favor of newcomer Goran Dragic, who may very well be the best passer on the team. Allowing Durant (or Irving) to attack on the second-side after Dragic runs a primary pick-and-roll could simplify KD’s reads against a shifting defense, manipulating only one-to-two defenders as he attacks with the ball in his hands. It could also allow the Nets to feature two of their three-best off-ball players as floor spacers. (Four, if Patty Mills can ever find his footing again *knocks on wood furiously*).

Here’s a great example of Durant’s effectiveness as a second-side guy against the Milwaukee Bucks. After Bruce Brown and Patty Mills run a dribble-handoff on the opposite side of the floor, Durant beats Jrue Holiday off the catch with a quick strike drive, drawing in Bobby Portis (who overhelps... it’s Pat Connaughton’s rotation!). A nice shuffle pass to Nic Claxton finishes the play in spectacular fashion. Viola!

Bruce Brown is better than ever at finding pockets of space

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Bruce Brown is the perfect role player for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at this.

The Nets are +4.1 when Brown shares the floor with just Kevin Durant. They’re +14.2 with Brown and Kyrie playing together without KD. When Brown shares the floor with both of Brooklyn’s stars, well, good things happen: Brooklyn is +13.4 with that magical trio.

The math is pretty simple. KD and Kyrie have seen a lot of double teams during the final quarter of the season. With two defenders loaded up onto one of Brooklyn's star players, that leaves the remaining three defenders to account for four offensive players. Ultimately, one defender will be tasked with tracking two Nets’ offenders, typically non-shooters. While Brown has made dramatic improvements as a floor spacer this season, he still isn’t necessarily looked at as a dynamic three-point threat by opponents—thus he isn’t forcing rotations.

So what does Bruce Brown do about this?

Roam. Roam and roam and roam. Roam until a crack in the defense exposes itself. No player on the Nets is better at finding pockets of open space than trusty, reliable Bruce.

Below, Kevin Durant posts up against Jrue Holiday, seven inches shorter than Brooklyn’s leading scorer. Knowing that KD can easily shoot over the top of this matchup, Brook Lopez provides secondary help from the baseline, forcing Giannis Antetokounmpo to bump down to Andre Drummond. Meanwhile, Pat Connaughton “zones up” the weakside of the floor and guards both Brown and Seth Curry; but because Curry is such a fantastic off-ball shooter, Connaughton mostly ignores Brown in favor of his three-point ready teammate.

Big mistake. Brown notices Connaughton shifted over and immediately cuts to the middle of the floor for his teardrop floater.

Here, Milwaukee sends two defenders Durant’s way with hopes of pinning him against the sideline after he and Brown tango for a dribble-handoff. Rather than standing by and surveying the scene, Bruce cuts directly to the rim to give KD an outlet.

Once an afterthought in the rotation, Brown has made himself essential as Brooklyn’s third-best player down the stretch (and sometimes second depending on how Kyrie looks). He’s the ultimate connector to two stars still working out the kinks, a sudden necessity in Brooklyn’s offseason. It turns out betting on himself and taking the qualifying offer last summer was, in fact, the right decision. Who woulda thunk it?

Go small... and just survive defensively

Going small with Kevin Durant at the 5 is Brooklyn’s version of the “always has been” meme.

On Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, Steve Nash put that lineup to the test by running 5-man KD alongside Seth Curry, Patty Mills, Kyrie Irving, and Bruce Brown. Granted, it was against New York’s not-so-vaunted dead-last crunchtime offense, but that Nets’ quintet was a +15 together. Conceptually, the dots connect; utilizing four floor-spacers and three capable-to-downright-excellent self-creators is one way to put points on the board. (Nash could get especially spicy by subbing in Goran Dragic for Brown to fully maximize his squad’s offensive potential).

Meanwhile, the name of the game has always been survival on the other end.

Playing three small guards—or really any number of them—is a risky game in the postseason. Opponents fine-tune and sharpen their blades in the playoff crucible, hunting and stalking mismatch opportunities like famished condors. Jrue Holiday absolutely feasted on post-ups against the much smaller Seth Curry, and Trae Young cruelly dusted Patty Mills like a street sweeper on numerous drives to the rim two days later.

Fortunately, Seth’s made up for his defensive deficiencies by stroking 46.8% of his threes as a Net.

Patty Mills... has not. He’s in the midst of a two-month slump and has connected on just 34.7% of his long-range looks since February 1. That must change. The Nets cannot afford to serve up playoff opponents with numerous targets on defense if they can’t offset things with a statistical model-shattering offense.

It’s what the next part of this season’s journey will tell us.