Christmas was more business trip than holiday for the Brooklyn Nets, who faced off against a division rival in the Boston Celtics on Friday.
The most recent previous X-mas games rewarded to Brooklyn came in back-to-back years, in 2012 and 2013, where the Brooklyn Nets suffered equally embarrassing 17-point losses to the Celtics and the Chicago Bulls. Brooklyn failed to touch 80 points in either blowout. The first half on Friday felt far too similar to those performances, yet it was also a reminder of how different these current Nets are.
Once again, the Nets came out struggling offensively on Christmas. Countless shots rimmed in and out, in addition to a double-digit turnover performance in the first two periods. Same old Christmas Day Brooklyn Nets. Yet, Steve Nash‘s squad was only down three points to a surefire playoff team. They had already put up 51 points, despite Kevin Durant only taking six shots. There was no hole to dig out of, despite all the first half shoveling. It felt as if Boston had missed their chance. They did.
The Nets came out and handled business in the second half. What began as a poor offensive performance turned into 123 points by the final buzzer. Brooklyn put a team that, frankly, is below their weight class (especially without Kemba Walker) in its place. They told NBA fans ready to see one competitive game on Christmas day that more waiting was in order. The talent disparity was simply too much.
And that’s why Brooklyn pulled it out, really. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are going to be the two best players on the court most days; facing Boston is no exception. The third quarter was an avalanche of pull-up jumpers and explosions to the rim. If there was a crowd, they would’ve been silenced. An empty arena just removed an extra step. The superstar duo outscored the Celtics by themselves in the third period. Then, the Brooklyn bench ensured the fourth quarter was just an exhibition, not competitive basketball. All in all, a successful December 25th.
Still, the Brooklyn Nets did not play their best basketball. Defensively, it was somewhere between good and great, but certainly not the best. Meanwhile, Kyrie and KD did what they do on offense, but the only other Net to crack double digits was Caris LeVert, who had more turnovers than made field goals. For all the room to improve teams don’t normally show in a blowout victory, LeVert showed the most.
Caris LeVert, the Lead Ballhandler
Caris LeVert has become a popular pick to win the 2021 Sixth Man of the Year award early in the NBA season. It’s not just his talent driving these predictions, but the role he’s been looking to fulfill over the first two games. Brooklyn’s bench unit thus far has been LeVert accompanied by Jarrett Allen, Landry Shamet, Jeff Green, and Taurean Prince. LeVert’s job has been to create pretty much all the offense for that group of five. It makes sense: Who else in there do you want to take more than 3 consecutive dribbles?
For all the ball-handling talent on this Nets squad, that particular unit is thin on guys who can initiate. Many see a role for Spencer Dinwiddie to accompany LeVert on the bench to increase the creation ability off the bench, especially considering who Dinwiddie is starting alongside. My last breakdown covered the potential for Spencer to impact the game with the starting unit, and it seems like Steve Nash and the coaching staff would like to see that to fruition.
The promise is there for the Nets bench unit. Caris LeVert, as we saw in March and in The Bubble, can be the best offensive player on the floor without feeling overly burdened. Especially if you just need him to be that for a few minutes or so at a time. But thus far in the ’20-’21 season, it hasn’t been the case.
Really, LeVert just hasn’t been hitting the shooters necessary to create a dynamic unit. That’s what is making the bench seem stagnant, and possibly in need of more ball-handling talent. Again, the promise of this particular bench unit is obvious. A pit bull on a leash is far less of a threat than one free to roam wherever it pleases. And LeVert, attacking other teams’ second units with finishing and shooting around him, and a skyrocketing usage rate, as a result, is as unchained as unchained can get. The problem on Friday, and, to an extent, vs. the Warriors, is LeVert is running around with a steak dangling in front of his nose. Screenshots can be misleading, but the fact that none of these plays resulted in a corner three is not great (Click the arrows on the sides of the images to swipe):
The Celtics, here, are previewing how teams will play LeVert and the rest of the bench, especially if the passing doesn’t improve. There are four defenders in the lane or right beside it on every one of these plays, leaving LeVert and Allen little room to operate their two-man game. Right now, LeVert’s interior passing is still far ahead of his kick out ability, evidenced by this beautiful feed from the fourth quarter:
That possession features everything you hope to see from Brooklyn’s bench. Green and Prince provide just enough spacing in the corners to clear space, and Shamet’s shooting prowess makes Teague a non-factor. LeVert and Allen, with three seasons and counting of chemistry to build on, work a beautiful two-man game for an easy dunk. That’s what a lot of possessions should look like this year. Many of them will.
But for the bench unit to fully reach its potential, LeVert has to be more willing to create threes for his teammates, to scramble defenses a bit more and force them to make multiple efforts. Otherwise, there will be a standard blueprint for how to stop the Nets’ bench unit. They’re too talented for that. Perhaps LeVert is having a bit of trouble adjusting from The Bubble, where he had the ball in his hands for 36 minutes a night like he was Luka Doncic. Maybe he’s too eager to impress in his new role. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely he won’t improve. That’s all he’s done his entire career.
- For this Nets fan, Boston is easily my most hated rival. Forget the Knicks, nothing could have felt better than beating the Celtics on their home floor on Christmas. If you’re a Nets fan from NYC, I don’t see how you could hate the Knicks more than Boston, especially given the Billy King disaster.
- The uniform matchup was the only thing more lopsided than the second half. The Basquiat jerseys compared to those last-minute-high-school-art-class-homework Boston jerseys was a sight to behold.
- Landry Shamet has one “A” level skill. He can shoot the rock. If Shamet keeps passing up open shots like he did on Friday, his playing time may dwindle. I suspect his trigger finger to get a little itchier.
- Jarrett Allen will feast on backup centers this year. He already has to be the best one in the league, right? Brooklyn switched 1-4 with DeAndre Jordan in drop, but with Allen on the court, they did a little of everything. He’s become that versatile, and Friday may have been both his best shot-blocking and rebounding performance since he entered the league.
- Speaking of their drop defense, it looked slightly different on Christmas. At times, it was less pronounced, with DeAndre Jordan closer to the level of the screener than all the way back at the rim. With mid-range shooters like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, you can’t just give them all that space to operate. DJ didn’t and passed his first real test this year, especially in the second half.
- The all-switching defense leaves Brooklyn exposed when offensive players start slipping screens. Boston did that a few times for easy layups and could’ve gotten more with better passing.
- Three times in this young season have the Nets run this play: Kyrie enters the ball to KD in the mid-post, from the top of the key. DeAndre Jordan sets a back-screen on Kyrie’s man, and KD pitches it back to him for a three-point attempt. Look for this to become a pet play for Brooklyn.
- Kyrie Irving giving this level of effort on defense this early in the season is a great sign for Brooklyn. He’s really pretty good on that end when he tries, but that’s not surprising for someone with his intelligence and lateral mobility.
- Kevin Durant in weak side help is a menace. His ability to play two guys with that wingspan allows Brooklyn to pack the paint vs. drivers, which they did an excellent job of Friday.
- Caris LeVert is just a little too eager right now, which is fine, normal, and very fixable. He looks so anxious playing off-ball defense and jumped out of his shoes a few times Friday trying to get steals that were never likely to happen.
- Jarrett Allen can continue to improve as a roll-man. On one play in the first half, he caught a pass and took it into two guys even though a corner shooter was open. In the fourth quarter, he gave it up to the corner even though nobody was in front of him when he caught it. He’s shown the ability to pass off the catch, now it’s the split-second decision making the needs to catch up.
Possession of the Night
When you hear “two-man game”, you normally think of a big and a small in some sort of screen or give-and-go action. And it typically doesn’t all unfold 25 feet away from the basket. But this backcourt of Irving and Joe Harris is just different. They are each, conservatively, top-15 long-range shooters in the NBA. Joe Harris can get to the rim with ease off the catch. Kyrie Irving is Kyrie Irving. They can break and bend defenses by simply passing it back and forth on the perimeter, and that’s what they do above.