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Can Brooklyn Nets match their defensive performance vs. Orlando Magic?

The Nets have won four of their last five despite injuries and a tough schedule. Defense, which many fans and staffers thought would be a strength, is finally getting there.

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Ten days ago, the Brooklyn Nets traveled to Atlanta to play the Hawks and their high-power offense. It turned into a frustrating loss. Mikal Bridges had 45, one of four players to score more than 20 points that night, but the final score, 147-145 in overtime and a 73-point first quarter, represented yet another defensive failing for the Nets.

Since then, the Nets have played better defense, winning four of five, the only loss what could be called an anomaly vs. the Hornets. Their blowout win over the Orlando Magic, arguably their best win of the season so far, featured a number of defensive positives despite missing Ben Simmons, Dorian Finney-Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, three defensive positives.

The question for Jacque Vaughn is whether the Nets can keep consistent on the defensive side going forward. Ironically or not, the first test will be Wednesday when they play the Hawks again in Atlanta.

“Yeah, I wish we could replicate that on a nightly basis, and that’s our challenge,” said Vaughn. “We’re able to turn people over, control the rebound. … That allows us to run, that allows us to maximize an offense that’s been playing pretty well, Top 10 in the league. So give our guys credit for understanding our formula.

“But being able to replicate it every single night has been the challenge. Defensively, the consistency hasn’t been there. Part of that is consistent lineups, which could change again. That’s just where we are as a team.”

Where they are as a team is found on game injury reports. With so many members of the rotation out or hurt in the first 19 games, lineups have been patchworks. And the defense reflects that, noted Brian Lewis Monday. They may be improving but they’re still 22nd in defensive rating. Most pundits expected them to be top 5.

Vaughn said they are figuring it out.

“We threw a few defenses out there and went back-and-forth and tried to get them thinking a little, slowing them down so we can keep them out of the paint,” Vaughn said.

“Being in zone, toggling back-and-forth with zone and man, and some full-court, three-quarters stuff really got our activity level high. That was what we were hoping for, especially starting small the way we did. That gave us some good dividends.”

The other element, said Dennis Smith Jr., expected to be a defensive stalwart, was the Nets toughness which the Magic could not match.

“Just our physicality to start the game off, started on the defensive end. Good things happen on offense when you play good defense, so that’s really the key was to be more physical,” said Smith. “So it was just, staying locked in every possession and keep it going. So that’s really what the key was during the week.”

Cam Thomas agreed saying the key was “our physicality starting the game off. It started on the defensive end. You know good things happen on offense when you play good defense. So that was the key, really, be more physical.”

That physicality was particularly evident in the match-up between Bridges and Franz Wagner, replicating the big game between Team USA and Germany in the FIBA World Cup. Wagner finished with 20 but a lot of those came after the Nets gained a hold on the lead. As Lewis wrote, the Nets denied the Magic and Wagner (6-of-16 overall) in the paint.

[T]he Nets forced a stunning 14 misses in the restricted area and 3-of-14 shooting in the rest of the paint [league percentage is 43.9]. Brooklyn’s seven blocks helped, with Bridges having three, to go with his 42 points on the other end.

Vaughn noted that the Nets lack of consistency was most evident in the loss to the Hornets when the Nets faltered and let Charlotte stay in the game.

“There’s a standard that I want these guys to be able to play with on a nightly basis, no matter who’s playing. So that was my frustration the other night,” Vaughn said. “We’ll play with a standard, and that standard is on both ends of the floor.”