How the Nets’ leaky defense has sent their offense into a tailspin and put their playoff hopes in jeopardy
Now stuck in a season-worst five-game losing skid, the Nets offense has fallen into a rut. But it’s their suddenly-plummeting defense that has dragged it there.
For the past several seasons, Brooklyn could rely on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving fueling their high-powered offense. But after trading the two superstars last month, the roster has been rebuilt and the game plan has changed.
They have struggled to find an alternative.
Robbed of Durant and Irving’s midrange mastery, the Nets have been forced to rely more on 3-point shooting, points off turnovers and an active defense to fuel it. But with that defense having sprung leaks, the transition game is sinking with it.
“I don’t think we got stops,” point guard Spencer Dinwiddie said of Brooklyn’s offensive funk. “That’s always going to be the tale of this team. Those cold stretches typically stem from not getting stops, because then we have to play in the halfcourt. The entire system kind of bogs down and we don’t get as high quality of looks.”
The Nets have gone from top 5 in the NBA in 3-point shooting to bottom 5 during this five-game winless streak, falling from fifth in the Eastern Conference standings all the way down into the dreaded play-in coming into Saturday’s all-important game in Miami.
And that’s largely because their inability to get stops has robbed them of the chance to get out and run, where they can either get cheap buckets in transition or at least opportunities to punish teams in early offense before defenses get set.
“Well, it’s interesting,” Jacque Vaughn said. “I coach with my gut, I coach with feel, I coach with analytics, I coach with the scouting report.. I try to throw all that into a little melting pot and see how our team is, what’s best for them to put them in the best positions. I think the randomness that we can play with early in the shot clock can help us. A lot of times that happens if you get in stops.
“[It’s] a little hard to run those same sets when you’re taking the ball out of the basket. So I think that’s the first piece of it. So that was kind of our concentration level with this group of let’s all of us think about defending. Whether you’re a defender or not, let’s think about defending and see if that can help us on the offensive end of the floor. Because when we do turn teams over, those transition buckets sometimes are layups and easy attacks.”
Back when they could lean on Durant and Irving, high-quality looks were easy to get in the halfcourt, particularly isolations that ended in mid-range jumpers.
While Mikal Bridges — who arrived from Phoenix as the centerpiece of the Durant megatrade — has a penchant for the mid-range as well, the Nets have found high-quality looks tougher to create.
Brooklyn’s best opportunities have come in transition, where they are averaging 14.9 points per game, ninth-best in the NBA through Thursday.
They haven’t been particularly dangerous on offense, but have at least been moderately effective playing at a higher pace, attacking matchup advantages in early offense.
But in failing to get stops (as evidenced in their defensive rating falling to 116.6 over the past five games vs. their 113.6 mark for the season) those 3-pointers have dried up.
The Nets’ pace — 11th highest in the league during a 5-1 stretch from March 3 through March 13 — has ground to a halt.
They’ve ranked 24th in their winless skid since, with Bridges acknowledging the need to get out on the fast break and run.
“Yeah; but we’ve just got to get stops in order to do that,” Bridges said. “I just think getting stops stops all that. So if we can get stops, we’ll have more opportunities to go out. But teams are scoring; we’ve just got to get stops for the opportunity.”
Brooklyn has shot .381 from 3-point range coming into Saturday’s game at Miami, fourth-best in the league. But they’ve been fourth-worst during their losing skid, at just .324.
“They’re just not going in right now,” Cam Johnson said. “I can only speak on myself personally, but that’s life as a basketball player. If it was easy, everybody would be shooting 3s and making them. You’ve got to weather storms and continue to shoot.”
Johnson arrived with Bridges in the Durant deal with a reputation as someone who can connect from deep. A career .391 shooter, Johnson was hitting .455 this season for Phoenix at the time of the trade.
He’s managed only .339 for Brooklyn.
“Sometimes games go like that,” Johnson said. “But we can’t let it affect us on the defensive end and have to continue to shoot them when we get those opportunities.”
Bridges’ slump has been more recent. And far more pronounced.
He was a revelation through his first 13 games in Brooklyn, shooting .509 from the floor and a white-hot .479 from 3-point range. But in the winless skid, he was just .443 overall and .250 from deep.
“Just got to keep shooting them,” Bridges said. “You know, it’s part of life. You miss some; you’ve just got to keep shooting them.”
That’s easier said than done.
Yes, it’s a make-or-miss league, but suffer through miss after miss and even the most self-assured shooter can suffer a crisis of confidence.
That may be where the Nets find themselves now, at the most inopportune time with just nine games left on the schedule and having just fallen a half-game behind Miami for the sixth and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I think collectively, obviously, our 3-point shot hasn’t been falling, and that turns into guys turning some down,” Dinwiddie admitted. “We have to keep shooting the good looks.”
And they need to start making them against the Heat.
“We want the looks,” Vaughn said. “I think you gain confidence by making some of those looks. So we’ve got to find ways to do it earlier in the shot clock.”
Getting them in early action probably will require getting stops. On this team now suddenly devoid of stars, their offense is no longer dynamic enough to survive being hamstrung by their defense.
Heading into Saturday night’s tilt against the Heat, the Nets, Miami and the Knicks are were within two games of each other in the standings.
Only two of the three will qualify for playoff berth. The third will get a spot in the play-in. It won’t be an easy race for any of the three since all face fairly easy schedules over the next two weeks.
Thanks to the folks at Tankathon, let’s take a look at the schedule ahead, presented in order from the easiest remaining slate left (per upcoming opponents’ winning percentage) to the hardest.
1. Nets (.445 opp. win pct., 9 games left): Only three games against teams with .500 or better records remain, but two against the Magic promise to add to the level of difficulty.
2. Knicks (.465, 7 games left): Probably safe in the No. 5 spot, but a new injury for Jalen Brunson and the surging Heat could make things complicated.
3. Heat (.478, 8 games left): Winners of four of their last five, there’s good reason no one wants to play this team in the playoffs.
— Paul Forrester