NEW YORK – On the brink of elimination, winless in three playoff games against the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets once again tried to explain what was wrong. Steve Nash said they turned the ball over because they were questioning themselves. Blake Griffin said they didn’t have the right spirit and weren’t a cohesive unit. Kyrie Irving said they were still trying to freeze. Kevin Durant said he didn’t have a lot of room to operate, he didn’t want to force himself and he was overthinking.
“Just a crap game,” Durant said at Barclays Center, following Brooklyn’s 109-103 loss in Game 3 of their first-round series on Saturday. “Shit game.”
Superstars see fewer double teams and less defensive assists when teaming up, and Superteams are meant to make the game easy. Why, then, did Durant and Irving have such a hard time? Is it fair that Boston is the best defensive team imaginable? Besides getting one more stoppage in the series opener, is there anything the Nets could have done to avoid that?
What happened to the PG County PG?
It’s less than two weeks since Brooklyn’s last regular season game. Irving called Durant the “PG of PG County (meaning Prince George’s County point guard) in the locker room and at the postgame press conference. Durant didn’t shoot well against the Indiana Pacers, but he had a career-high 16 assists. Irving praised him for “letting the game come to him” and “not overthinking it”.
All season, Durant has seen more extreme defensive coverage than he would like. Sometimes teams would trap him as soon as he crossed the half court. The Nets have regularly played two or even three players that defenses ignore. It’s no coincidence that in the first game Joe Harris missed due to his season-ending ankle injury, the Golden State Warriors used a box-and-1 and a triangle-and -2 in Brooklyn.
At their best, Durant and the Nets were able to capitalize on all that attention, countering their sub-par spacing with timely ball movement and cuts. In the 523 regular season minutes Durant and Irving played together, Brooklyn scored 122.8 points per 100 possessions. That number fell to 111.9 per 100 in 111 playoff minutes against the Celtics. Boston deprived Durant of the ball, took away his airspace, took away his lanes and gave him pause.
It wasn’t just the change and the physique that bothered Durant. Boston is a sophisticated defensive team that communicates, gets close to shooters, and uses its length as well as anyone. And Brooklyn got in its own way.
In the series, the Celtics attempted 103 3-pointers on 74 for the Nets. Even after Brooklyn called up their long 2s on Saturday, after two straight games in which it took more than any regular season game. , too many possessions went in a familiar way: Durant catches the ball isolated against a tough defender about 17 feet from the basket, staring at a loaded defense, with several teammates inside the 3-point line.
You’re not going to create many 3s from this scenario. But Durant is used to finding his rhythm by getting those types of touches and getting to his spots.
“With pleasure [shoot more 3s]”Nash said after practice on Friday. “That’s not necessarily the nature of our group. Ironically, we have a lot of good 3-point shooters, but… it’s not all their kind of No. 1 sweet spot, so to speak.
Instead of working hard to get Durant the ball inside the arc, the Nets could have had him initiate the attack more often. Part of Mike D’Antoni’s justification for putting James Harden on the ball six years ago was to save Harden from using so much energy ‘out there in the wrestling match of people trying to hold him and keep denying and all that”. Brooklyn found some success against Boston when Durant ran high ball screens in Game 3, but that wasn’t the primary strategy. The Nets turned the ball over several times trying to throw entry passes to him.
“I think we were just trying to strike a balance between him being on top of the key attack, but also not taking so many wasted dribbles against wasted defense,” Irving said.
Boston complicates things
Last June, the Milwaukee Bucks challenged Durant to beat them single-handedly and he nearly did. Besides facing the complete opposite defensive game plan from Boston, Durant was in a drastically different offensive environment – in his masterpiece of 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 5, the Nets attempted 43 3-pointers. Their “centers,” Griffin and Jeff Green, shot a total of 10-for-14 from deep.
The easiest way to explain Brooklyn’s problems on offense is to recall an old coaching aphorism: Offense is spacing, and spacing is offense. Before Saturday’s game, however, Nash slightly pushed back on the idea that the Nets simply needed more shots from the field.
“It’s a component of it,” he said. “Obviously Joe Harris is a loss. But we still have to attack, we still have to play together, we still have to stick to our principles. I thought we saw them in the first half. [of Game 2] and we slowed down a lot in a number of ways in the second half.. but I’m very hesitant to give black and white answers because the game is not black and white.”
Brooklyn scored 130 points for 100 possessions in the first half of Game 2. On Saturday, he scored 128.2 for 100 in Durant’s 22 minutes in the first half. The nasty possessions that followed will be remembered, but the Nets showed they had some ideas about how to attack a defense with few weak links.
On that first-quarter possession at Barclays, Irving handed the ball to Durant, then immediately ran into a rocket screen from Nic Claxton. Boston changed him, leaving the smaller Marcus Smart on Claxton. Irving went into the paint, drew help and found Claxton in the dunker spot with a lob:
Next play, same concept: Durant gets off the ball quickly, Claxton is in the dunk spot against Smart, and Irving has room for a one-on-one as Durant and Seth Curry are on either side of him:
Here, Claxton slides a screen for Patty Mills on base play out of bounds. Grant Williams and Jaylen Brown mess up the switch and Durant drops the ball to Claxton, who watches a cutting Bruce Brown and finds Mills wide open for a 3:
It’s the kind of thing the Nets had to do when they couldn’t go after Daniel Theis or Payton Pritchard. (By the way, it’s still unclear why they let Pritchard off the hook in Game 2.) But it’s tough and complicated. The Celtics don’t make a lot of mistakes, and when you try to manipulate matchups, you might be hit with the shot clock by the time you get what you’re looking for. The benefits disappear quickly.
Nash said Boston’s defense made Brooklyn undecided, which resulted in easy turnovers and baskets at the other end. “We’re not playing our best basketball, we’re not forceful in our actions, having that belief,” he said. No one should have expected this group to turn into the 2019 Golden State Warriors team that conquered the Houston Rockets switching pattern with constant movement and misdirection after losing Durant to a a calf injury. It would have helped, however, to have less failures like this:
The Nets have spent the past six months searching. On opening night against the Bucks, they started Griffin next to Claxton in the frontcourt and played James Johnson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jevon Carter in the second unit. Paul Millsap took Johnson’s place in the following match. DeAndre’ Bembry has been an important part of Brooklyn’s defense for quite some time. On Christmas Day, Harden began a four-game streak in which he scored at least 33 points and delivered at least 10 assists. In mid-March, the Nets were reportedly hoping Ben Simmons would be back for their final two regular season games.
In a must-watch game on Saturday, Brooklyn entered the fourth quarter with a roster that had no fullbacks and had never played together: Mills, Curry, Irving, Durant and Griffin. Griffin had been out of the rotation since mid-February, and he had recorded six minutes in a game in the four weeks leading up to Game 3. There was never a time in the 2021-22 season when the staff of Nash’s coaches didn’t have to compromise defense for spacing or vice versa, experimenting with flawed solutions to his twin problems of roster imbalance and lack of continuity. Facing the Celtics, a team that offers the strongest possible contrast, the Nets ran out of time.