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Wait, the Nets play DEFENSE?
There wasn’t a soul on the face of this earth that questioned what the Brooklyn Nets would look like on the offensive end this postseason. They’ve got 3 superstars (and I don’t use that term lightly), 1 former superstar (who’s had more dunks in this series against the Bucks than he did in the ENTIRE 2019-2020 season), and a host of excellent role players that can stroke it from three, attack the closeout, and play within themselves. Perhaps there were some individuals out there who questioned the 3 stars’ lack of minutes played together during the regular season, but those concerns were very quickly answered after the Nets whooping of the Celtics in games 1 and 2. The focus then, and rightfully so, shifted to whether the Nets could defend at a championship level - and not against the Celtics - but against the Bucks, a championship-level team. So, I’m going to do a little dive into how they’ve defended the Bucks so far this series (I’ll give you a hint... they’ve done a hell of a job)
Size and Length
Most of the questions about the Nets’ defense revolved around whether the Nets could defend the paint with their lack of size; although they have a near-7 foot KD in their lineup, their Center is Blake Griffin (6’9), and now without Harden, they start Bruce Brown (6’4) in a forward type role. Then, they have a 6’2 Irving and a 6’6 Joe Harris, so it’s safe to say they aren’t too big or long (especially given the fact that KD doesn’t play a big-man type role on the court). The Bucks, on the other hand, are extremely big and long; they start Brook Lopez (7’0) at the Center position, and then they have both Giannis (7’0) and Tucker (6’6, but he plays a LOT bigger) in their front court as well. Then, they start Middleton (6’7) and Jrue Holiday (6’3, but like Tucker, he plays a lot bigger than he is). So, there’s clearly a size, length, and strength difference - I’m not going to go over each of these guys' wingspans as well, but the Bucks are longer. That being said, what do the numbers say about how the Nets have actually fared against the size mismatch?
Field Goal Attempts against the Nets on post ups (playoffs):
Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage on post ups (playoffs):
Well, although the Nets have been posted up more than the average team (they have the 6th most FGA against them out of the post of all the teams in the playoffs), they have the 2nd best defensive EFG% against post-ups. In other words, even though teams try to post them up a lot, they’re actually very effective at defending the post. Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, and Bruce Brown have all done an excellent job holding their own against the size and length of both Giannis and Lopez, and when Kyrie or Joe Harris has been switched onto a taller player (which has happened a lot), the weak-side help has been on-time and aggressive, oftentimes leading to deflections and steals. Blake Griffin leads the NBA in charges, so players are often scared to body him out of fear that he’ll just flop backwards. I don’t love that Blake is using the softness of the current NBA to his advantage, but you certainly can’t hate on him for playing to the rules of the game.
It’s not just about post-ups, though, because the Nets have virtually no rim protection besides 10-15 minutes from Claxton off the bench; it’s also about how they defend drives and how they contest shots (both within the paint and outside of it). So, let’s see how the Nets have done in those aspects.
Defensive Field Goal Percentage (playoffs):
Defensive Field Goal Percentage Less than 6 feet (playoffs):
The Nets have the NUMBER 4 defensive FG% of all the playoff teams. This cannot be brushed over, because it’s literally the most important defensive statistic (in my opinion). What percentage of the shots that the other team takes do they make? Well, against the Nets, not a very high percentage. Additionally, the Nets have the NUMBER 2 defensive FG% within 2 feet, which speaks even more to how they’ve defended the paint specifically. Despite having no rim protection or size in their front court, the Nets have been able to drastically limit both the Bucks and the Celtics success in the painted area, which has proven to be an integral part to their awesome playoff start. They’re also tied for 4th in shot blocks per game, which quite frankly doesn’t make that much sense. These guys are flying around the court and are looking like a COMPLETELY different defensive team than they did during the regular season, and it’s resulting in them blocking way more shots than they have any business blocking.
Hustle and Effort
Besides the size questions, the other main concern revolved around the Nets lack of hustle and effort on the defensive end; during the regular season they relied a lot on their offense to carry them through games, and they often showed a lack of any sort of ability to stop dribble penetration and buckets at the rim (they had the 8th worst DEF Rating in the NBA during the regular season). Let’s see what they’ve done in the postseason, though, because it’s been a complete turnaround.
Deflections per game (playoffs):
Loose Balls Recovered Percentage (playoffs):
Steals per game (playoffs):
The Nets have the 4th most deflections of any team in the playoffs, a stat that I would argue more accurately portrays hustle than any other statistic (they were 24th during the regular season). They’re in the passing lane, they’re making multiple efforts on every possession to stop drives and get out to shooters, and they’re being extremely active on the ball. It’s led to them having the 3rd most steals per game of all teams in the playoffs, and it’s allowed them to get out in transition and get easy buckets, something you can’t allow the Nets to do given how easily they score in the half-court. They’ve also recovered 59.5% of defensive loose balls, which is good for 4th in the NBA during these playoffs (they were below average during the RS). Like deflections, this is a statistic that does a solid job showcasing effort and hustle, and the Nets once again prove that they are a different defensive team than they were during the regular season.
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