How you feel about this possession is a good indicator of where you are on the Brooklyn Nets’ offense right now:
But Lucas, you say. What is there to feel? They produced a quality 3-point look after a solid drive-and-kick that got the defense scrambling. Dorian Finney-Smith just has to hit that. I can’t really argue with you there.
Jacque Vaughn wouldn’t either. When asked after Wednesday’s practice about the looks Brooklyn got vs. the Philadelphia 76ers’ zone defense, he said, “Oh, those looks were pretty good...I mean, we had layup, open corner three, other side open corner three. We missed two high-quad threes. We got penetration, open. They want to play zone, we’ll take those same shots.”
But consider the context of that shot, for a moment. The Sixers were in the midst of a 9-0 run that granted them their first lead in over a quarter of play; the Nets had just surrendered a 45 second possession to Philly thanks to, you guessed it, offensive rebounding. And, most consequentially, they hadn’t taken a two-pointer or free throw in three minutes,
So, at a crucial juncture, hoping to halt the home favorite’s momentum, a solid possession resulted in Finney-Smith, shooting 32% on non-corner threes this season, attempting a lightly contested one.
Let’s be clear about two things: He needs to shoot that. Yes, there’s space in front of him, but DFS is not who Vaughn and the Nets want making plays off the dribble, and that’s fine. There’s still a major role for him to fill, but only if he’s not trigger-shy. Second, this isn’t about man or zone defense, neither of which changes the feel of Brooklyn’s paint-avoidant offense that much.
“I just think you have to look at the profile of our team,” said Vaughn, before adding “It’s not like we were a team that attacked the rim at a high quality and high clip throughout the course of the year. Especially in the playoffs, that slows down. It’s not like we’re gonna be able to flip a switch and that’s gonna change.”
True again. Brooklyn has but one real ball-handler in Spencer Dinwiddie, who has never been relied upon to control as many possessions as he is now; few players are. But there has to be a better way, or else every critical offensive possession for the remainder of the series is going to result in a facsimile of the above: a decent shooter with a look that the Sixers are content to allow.
In Game 2, Philadelphia shot 22/34 inside the restricted arc, and drew four shooting fouls. Brooklyn shot 8/17 (yikes/yikes), drawing just one shooting foul; that’s an insurmountable difference.
A sizable part of this is still on Dinwiddie’s shoulders - I wrote about that phenomenon after Game 1, and the wiry guard did not improve much in his quests to get downhill in Game 2:
Thus, the Cam Thomas chatter, which will never end, at least makes a bit of sense now. If Nets are going to abort their drives to the rim upon seeing Joel Embiid down the pipe, maybe Thomas can get hot from pull-up range. You’d rather him take those shots than Dinwiddie, or really any Net besides Bridges right now.
But I think Vaughn has to (and is still going to) bet on the highest ceiling outcome: Trust his high-usage guys to figure it out and get downhill. Dinwiddie has shown more aggressiveness in isolation, rather than pick-and-roll, and Bridges seemed to figure some things out late in Monday’s Game 2:
That trust could extend to Nic Claxton; the NBA’s regular season field-goal percentage leader has been largely invisible in the postseason. Part of that is a lack of playing time, stemming from Brooklyn’s defensive scheme. The constant doubling and recovering off of Embiid decrease Claxton’s role on that end, making it easier to go all-out on offensive spacing on the other end. But take this possession, against man defense, for example:
Dinwiddie drives strong to the paint, forces a rotation, makes a good read, but the Nets miss another 3-pointer. It’s a good look, of course, but another in a long line of looks that aren’t easy. Especially with Embiid off the floor, the Nets may explore parking Claxton in the dunker spot; in that case, the above possession would’ve forced a dump-off or lob to Clax, who would’ve had to finish through or over Paul Reed. I’d let him take that chance, at this point.
When asked on Wednesday how he could further impact the game offensively, Claxton responded, “Yeah, just switching it up, not being as predictive offensively, maybe playing in space a little bit more and working with my teammates to get myself involved more.” So whether it’s the fake-handoff game we saw more of towards the end of the regular season, or dunker spot opportunities, look out for a Clax attack in Game 3. If Brooklyn needs him to step up, and they do, he must have a chance.
Defensively, we may see more of this in Game 3:
Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale, O’Neale in particular, fought their behinds off trying to deny Embiid the ball on Monday. Thus, Embiid, when he did catch the ball, wasn’t starting his possessions close to the basket - can you picture him operating out of a traditional low-block post up in Game 2?
Possessions like the above, with O’Neale/Finney-Smith guarding Embiid and Claxton in an aggressive free safety role, do two things. Besides playing to a strength of the NBA’s silver medalist in blocks, it shows Embiid a different look.
Again, defense, outside of rebounding (which is obviously more than a cast-aside, but, in my opinion, largely unrelated to Brooklyn’s double-at-all-costs scheme) is not why the Nets are down 2-0 in this series. But Embiid and his Sixers teammates started to figure some things out in the second half of Monday’s contest, often working from the middle of the floor, throwing in some wrinkles, and exposing miscommunications in Brooklyn’s back line:
The 76ers have also seemingly realized who their perfect release valve is: Tyrese Maxey, who exploded for 33 points in Game 2. Prior to the series, I wrote that “he’s the guy that I think can really burn Brooklyn to the ground, if it’s not careful...If Brooklyn is scrambling, he has the handle/burst/athleticism to torch it when attacking closeouts. The Nets have to force somebody other than Embiid and, to an extent, Harden to beat them. Naturally, Maxey is next up. I get that. I just think he’s built to give them a whole lot of trouble.”
That certainly came to fruition in Game 2.
His play, in addition to weaponizing Nic Claxton, is another reason why Brooklyn would do well to diversify some of their defensive coverages against Embiid. Brooklyn is playing well on that end so far, but you never want to be the team that’s late adjusting, caught with your pants down.
Look for the Nets to generate some, or any looks at the rim that they can, back home with a hopefully favorable whistle. Look for Bridges, Dinwiddie, and Cam Johnson, the only Net that hasn’t been afraid to challenge Embiid, to force their way into the paint. And don’t be surprised if we see even more unique defensive coverages against Joel Embiid.