Just as the Brooklyn Nets were 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, and 5-5, they now sit at 6-6 after a road loss to the Miami Heat, ending their five-game win streak against the NBA’s southern-most franchise. Consistency is key, I suppose.
While Miami hadn’t lost since a November 1 contest against Brooklyn, when Armoni Brooks and Trendon Watford burst onto the scene, the Nets have showed an admirable commitment to maintaining a .500 record. Brooklyn’s start to the season may feel more positive than 6-6, especially considering the cascading injuries that currently feature Cam Thomas and Ben Simmons on the shelf. But a winning streak might be nice, no?
Their loss in Miami wasn’t particularly discouraging; there were bright spots, even against the currently-rolling Eastern Conference champion. It’s fairly easy to take this one in stride and prepare to face the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday afternoon. Eventually, though, the Nets must catch a hot streak rather than simply winning the games they’re supposed to while dropping the tough ones. Still, you could do a lot worse than that.
All in all? Eh. Let’s get to three takeaways from the Nets’ 122-115 loss on Thursday night.
Unleash the Clax Attack
Nic Claxton was Brooklyn’s best player against Miami, providing the fearsome rim protection we’ve come to expect: He blocked three shots and altered many more. But it was the offensive end where he really excelled. Clax scored 16 points on a perfect 7-of-7 performance from the field, though just 2-of-4 of the line. More impressive, though, was the variety of his shot-making.
Claxton is a prolific lob-threat, and it’s easy to figure out why, given his length, athleticism, and hand-eye coordination. He ooped four alleys on Thursday, and just the threat of his rolls to the rim have been enough to collapse the defense and create 3-point attempts for his teammates. But Claxton has consistently shown more offensive ability than that, and it’s time for the Brooklyn Nets, particularly with Ben Simmons out, to lean into it. We saw flashes of it against the Heat:
Despite the Brooklyn Nets' 122-115 loss to the Miami Heat, Nic Claxton was a major bright spot.— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 17, 2023
- 16 points
- 6 rebounds
- 3 blocks
- 7-7 shooting, continuing to show far more than just the lob-catching ability: pic.twitter.com/7p8Lve6Fpo
Perhaps Jacque Vaughn’s current rotation is a result of Claxton still working his way back from injury, re-gaining his wind. Right now, the fifth-year pro is playing short stints, frequently subbing out for Day’Ron Sharpe after five minutes or so of playing time. While the 27 minutes Clax played against Miami can’t and won’t be the norm, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the substitution pattern.
It forces the opponent to stick their backup big on Claxton, a matchup that often leans heavily in Brooklyn’s favor. Can Danilo Gallinari guard Nic Claxton? Come on:
Nic Claxton self-creating from the elbow is a wonderful sight: pic.twitter.com/r30p4iHsgP— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 12, 2023
Claxton has become too skilled of an offensive player for Brooklyn not to take advantage of it. They attacked his matchup with Kevin Love a couple times on Thursday, but not nearly enough, as the Nets were struggling to find offense elsewhere. Claxton shouldn’t post up on every possession, nor should his usage rate skyrocket. But if Kevin Love is guarding him, or heck, if a guard like Josh Richardson switches onto him, Brooklyn’s offense should be more diligent about featuring their talented big.
This isn’t a negative takeaway. Claxton showcasing the offensive growth that started in earnest last season is always a good sign, and that was just his fourth appearance of the season. But considering that growth, it just feels like Brooklyn missed too many opportunities against the Heat to exploit a clear advantage. Put the ball in Claxton’s hands, at least a little more frequently.
Tough as Nails?
Jacque Vaughn and his coaching staff have the Brooklyn Nets playing more drop coverage this year, asking their guards to fight over pick-and-rolls while Nic Claxton, Day’Ron Sharpe and occasionally, Dorian Finney-Smith, hang near the rim. We’ve covered this by now, a topic of discussion among coaches, players, reporters, and fans since training camp.
The Nets are also adding aggressive help at the nail against the pick-and-roll, essentially bringing a third defender into the mix. The Miami Heat exposed that practice repeatedly on Thursday night, starting with their first field goal of the game:
Cam Johnson certainly could have played that better, but asking him to contain a Kyle Lowry drive by helping that far off Duncan Robinson? This strategy made more sense when Claxton was injured, and Finney-Smith was left to protect the rim on his own. But now that one of the NBA’s premier shot-blockers is back there, the math changes.
Brooklyn sticks to this principle of aggressive nail help even when the roller is headed towards middle of the court, rather than the ball-handler. (For the uninitiated, the term ‘nail’ help derives from the fact that there is a literal nail at the center of the free-throw line. So, you can guess where nail help resides.) On this play, the nail help greets Bam Adebayo rolling middle, but reminder, Day’Ron Sharpe is playing drop coverage. Adebayo, at 18 feet from the basket, has two defenders focused on him. It goes as poorly as you’d expect:
The purpose of this paint-centric drop defense is to force turnovers, I presume. Forcing more turnovers is the point of emphasis right now for Jacque Vaughn, who correctly pointed out prior to the Magic game that a low-turnover rate was the only thing holding Brooklyn’s defense back.
Vaughn also pointed out that, “the more passes you have, the more you increase the opportunity to turn the basketball over in a possession.”
So I think the goal is something like this, where the Heat are forced to make multiple decisions off-the-dribble, increasing those chances for a turnover:
Still, though, Miami ends up with a wide-open 3-pointer that Jimmy Butler misses. Strong drive-and-kick teams, especially well-coached ones with strong spacing like the Heat, may not hate facing this type of coverage.
There are certainly pros to dropping with aggressive nail help, and the Nets have had success doing so this season. It does limit attempts at the rim and, crucially, limit offensive rebounds. Still, it’s something I’ll have my eye on in the coming weeks.
Let Jimmy Cook
An excellent strategy if you’re the Miami Heat, not so much if you’re the Brooklyn Nets. Jimmy Butler scored a season-high 36 points on Thursday night on 12-19 shooting, looking entirely unbothered, despite Brooklyn’s stable of wings theoretically constructed to slow players like Butler.
The issue isn’t that Butler got hot or made a few great plays, or even scored 30. The best players in the NBA will do that. It was curious, though, that the Nets allowed Butler the freedom to work unbothered in isolation against whoever he chose, even after his scoring avalanche started.
To double or not to double? It’s a question that drives NBA defenses up the wall when guarding the league’s premier talent; hell, there’s still no answer for it against Nikola Jokic. Perhaps some of the reason the Nets never doubled Butler was because Duncan Robinson had it going on, hitting 6-10 threes en route to 26 points. It may be a frustrating decision to watch in real-time, as Butler goes crazy, but it is more complicated than it seems.
What I didn't understand was soft-switching on top of playing single coverage. Dorian Finney-Smith played the strongest isolation defense of any Net, strong enough to stand up to Butler in the post while poking the ball away a few times. So why surrender switches and unbothered isolations this freely?
I’m of the opinion that Jacque Vaughn has had an incredibly strong start to the season, not just by judging the chutzpah the oft-injured Nets are playing with, but even zeroing in on the in-game adjustments the Nets have been making.
That being said, I did not understand the plan against Miami’s offense on Thursday night, specifically against Jimmy Butler. Not doubling or sending early help to him? That’s one thing. But allowing him to pick and choose who he was going to attack on an island, even after the buckets started to add up? It was tough to understand.
None of the above issues are alarm-worthy, and none of them stood alone as the key to a Miami Heat victory on Thursday night. More than anything, the Brooklyn Nets simply didn’t have it. Not for lack of effort or focus, it just simply wasn’t their night down in South Beach.
Luckily, they’ll have an extra off-day as they prepare to face the 8-3 Philadelphia 76ers at the Barclays Center on Sunday afternoon, the first meeting between the two Atlantic Division rivals this season.