The Nets have opened the season 1-4 — their worst start since 2015-16 — despite the fact that both of their high-scoring superstars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, have been available in every game.
They are what happens when unstoppable offense gets wasted by unacceptable defense.
Brooklyn has a horrible habit of turning opposing stars into supernovas. After an offseason that saw its two cornerstones each on the verge of jumping ship, the Nets’ season may now hinge on whether they can hold morale together long enough to shore up one of the worst defenses in basketball.
“Sounds like a pretty word, morale; all the nice terms we throw around the game of basketball,” Irving said. “But really, it’s preparation, going out there and executing and really just trusting that your work that you put in before the game will pay off. We just want to play free.
“But we just know as basketball players when a guy gets it going against us, then we’ve got to be ready to rotate and make a change right on the fly. And these last few games … every star player has come in here and had 35-plus or 30-plus. That’s just not good enough in his league, when you can’t limit the guy that’s going to have the ball for the majority of the game, you can’t limit him from some of his opportunities. So got to be better, just got to be better.”
Brooklyn was supposed to be one of the best shows in the league. And with the only pair of teammates in the Top 10 in scoring — Durant third at 33.2, Irving 10th at 29.6 — they’ve been a marquee attraction. The problem is the tean’s sieve-like defense has let opposing stars steal the spotlight.
Toronto’s Pascal Siakam poured in 37 points.
Memphis’ Ja Morant and Desmond Bane had 38…each.
Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo had 43 points in the Nets’ collapse Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Finally, on the very next night there was Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who dominated with 41 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds — just the third 40-point triple double the Nets have ever allowed in their history.
“They made shots. We didn’t,” Durant said with a heavy sigh. “They hit three 3s in overtime, wide open ones. Bad coverage and their shooters knocked them down.”
Of course, they weren’t all wide open; just far too many of them.
The frustrating part is while several past Nets teams have been predictably porous on defense — lacking in players accomplished on that end of the floor — this squad was supposed to be different.
Ben Simmons was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in his last healthy season and led the league in steals the year before that, first-team All-Defense in both campaigns. Durant got an All-Defense vote last season, and Royce O’Neale has a reputation as a 3-and-D wing. Even young center Nic Claxton is a switchable big, capable of guarding multiple positions.
All four have started every single game for Brooklyn so far this season coming into Saturday’s contest against visiting Indiana, but they still rank second-to-last (behind Detroit) in defensive rating (120.2) and defensive rebounding (29.8 per game).
“We’ve got to just be guarding the best players in the league night after night,” Durant said. “They’re going to get theirs, because they’ve got the ball in their hands; but it’s all about making it tough as you can.”
Sometimes Brooklyn has made it tough; but just not for long enough.
The Nets did a great job putting up a wall against Antetokounmpo in the first half on Monday, barring him from the basket and holding him to just nine points on 3-of-10 shooting. But they were helpless in watching him erupt for 34 after halftime to break them. He shot 13-of-15 — with a dozen coming in the restricted area.
“I’m not going to overcomplicate it,” Irving said afterwards. “It just starts with defensive pride and using our IQs to the best of our ability. We have a lot of long guys in terms of length out there on the perimeter. A lot of teams get in our paint, [get] offensive rebounds and that’s the game right there.
“It’s effort. And it’s just positioning. If you are not in the right body position in basketball, you are going get beat…It was just a learning lesson along the journey.”
While Brooklyn’s defense was woefully undersized last season — Irving, Bruce Brown and Seth Curry were all in the Top 4 in minutes during their first-round sweep at the hands of Boston — they added considerable length and height to this year’s lineup, as Simmons joined Durant and Claxton as starters with 7-foot wingspans.
Yet Brooklyn came into Saturday third-worst in the NBA in points allowed (121.6), second-worst in Net Rating (minus-8.7) and tied for worst in rebound percentage (.465). They were third-worst in 3-point percentage allowed and fourth-worst in overall field-goal defense.
Despite having added some solid defenders, the results haven’t followed. Simmons is still working his way back from having missed all of last season with a herniated disc and undergoing back surgery. O’Neale doesn’t appear to be the lockdown on-ball glove he once was, and while he’s got great instincts and quick hands, he’s a solid team defender on a team that hasn’t quite figured out how to get on the same page defensively.
Or at least, how to stay there.
“I think, just as a team, [the issue is] us getting away from our principles, habits,” O’Neale told the Post. “Especially now early on you’re trying to build those habits, and keep moving forward, learn from it.”
Steve Nash has acknowledged as much himself. He admits his team has, at times, pulled away from their game plans and fallen back into bad habits when faced with adversity. And that has allowed some opposing stars to “get loose.”
“Yeah, I think in some ways you could just say that this group hasn’t played together a lot,” Nash said. “There’s not [those] common experiences, so we have these pockets of play where it’s like we’re looking around a little bit at each other. Like, ‘I thought you were going to take that? I thought I had this.’ So I think just that familiarity with one another is a big part of it.”
Other than backup Markieff Morris — who has missed the last three games with a personal issue, dealing with the death of a loved one — the Nets don’t have a single player with a defensive rating better than 114. For perspective, every single player who has logged more than two minutes for Milwaukee has a rating of 105 or better.
That doesn’t mean the elements don’t exist for better. Unlike prior years, Brooklyn has some solid individual defenders. The problem has been getting them to stop defending as individuals and stay committed to the game plan, defending as a unit.
“It’s a team effort,” O’Neale said. “I mean, we are not just one person. We’re all in it. So it’s a team effort. We’ve all got to stick with each other, and that’s what we’re going to do. I mean, it’s nobody’s fault or not a single person’s fault. If it’s one person, it’s all of us.”
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