The Brooklyn Nets came into Tuesday night in need of something positive. Since a Christmas Day blowout of the Boston Celtics, the Nets had only managed one victory in five games, in addition to losing guard Spencer Dinwiddie for the season due to a partial ACL tear. And if things couldn’t get much worse, news broke on Monday that Brooklyn would be without all-world talent Kevin Durant for a week due to COVID-related safety protocols.
Possibly looking to inject more life into his group, Head coach Steve Nash decided to make a change. A few, actually. Bruce Brown, Jarrett Allen, and Jeff Green each made their first start of the season vs. the Utah Jazz. Along with Taurean Prince and Kyrie Irving, that starting five would unforeseeable just a handful of days ago. Only Irving had started on both Christmas day and on Tuesday vs. Utah.
The changes amounted to a roaring success for Nash and his staff, the first clear-cut, home-run decision of his tenure. Even if it was just for game 8 of the regular season, seeing a risk pay off is always gratifying. The Brooklyn Nets came out of the gates with an intensity level unmatched since the second half vs. Boston. As a result, the contest was over fairly quickly; Brooklyn’s lead did not fall below double digits for the final 43 minutes of gameplay. It was as feel-good of a win as feel-good wins come, with all 13 healthy Nets logging minutes, and all but Chris Chiozza getting on the scoreboard. Nonetheless, there were a handful of Nets performances that stood above the rest during a joyous victory.
Bruce Brown finally gets some run
The Brooklyn Nets had a relatively quiet offseason compared to what some may have expected. The only trade Sean Marks executed resulted in the additions of Bruce Brown and Landry Shamet, a couple of guards who, in an ideal world, Brooklyn could fuse into a single, uber-productive role-player. Shamet received more of whatever headlines there were. It made sense, a sharpshooter who had already logged major playoff minutes for a ready-made contender. And it was Shamet who had received playing time throughout the first two weeks of the season, while Bruce Brown sat idly by. On Tuesday vs. the Jazz, however, those roles reversed. Shamet was glued to the pine for all the non-garbage minutes, while Brown contributed in a major way in his Nets debut.
I wrote, after the opening night victory vs. Golden State, about how Spencer Dinwiddie could contribute to the 2020-’21 Nets. Here was this 6’5″, long-armed, athletic guard who can get coast-to-coast in a hurry. Dinwiddie, when healthy, has the skillset and frame to see over defenses or run past them. He’s hard to stop 1-on-1, especially vs. a switch, but showed an eagerness to keep the offense flowing and be a consistent-ball mover. For someone who averaged 21 and seven assists last year, playing with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant may have forced him to accept a lesser role, in terms of ball-handling duties, but by no means did that equate to a role of lesser importance. Dinwiddie’s presence on the court added another dimension to an already explosive offense. The fit wasn’t seamless off the bat (these things never are) but the potential was there.
Bruce Brown, both on paper and what he showed vs. Utah, is the closest thing to an in-house replacement as the Brooklyn Nets are going to get for those attributes. Just look at the way the 6’4″ Brown muscles up with Donovan Mitchell, and uses his 6’9″ wingspan to keep him in check in the pick and roll (PnR):
A foul was called, but that’s picturesque. PnR defense has been a sore spot for the Nets in this young season; the inadequacy of their guards in getting over the top of ball screens has played a large role in that. When Jarrett Allen or DeAndre Jordan is playing drop defense, it’s the guards’ responsibility to fight over the screen and make life tough on the ball-handler and prevent a runway to the rim. Yes, DeAndre Jordan in particular has been a negative in these situations so far, but his life, and the Nets’ defense in general, will be much better if the guards are consistently doing what Bruce Brown does there.
Offensively, Brown had a stellar debut as a ball-mover and pace-pusher, although he missed his only three point shot. Brown’s presence, like Dinwiddie’s, means another coast-to-coast athlete capable of bringing the ball up or filling the lane in transition, as he does on these plays:
The first clip exemplifies the seven seconds or less influence Steve Nash said he would bring to this Brooklyn Nets team. You can see Jacque Vaughn on the bench, waving Brown to push the ball up the floor like a third-base coach. That he does, and he keeps his head up and provides some downhill momentum for Kyrie Irving with a handoff, and Kyrie lays the ball up with 18 on the shot clock. It’s no spectacular play by Brown; he’s just injecting some pace into the offense, keeping his head up and generating some early offense.
The second clip showcases Brown’s aforementioned vertical athleticism. Compare him to a horizontal athlete like LeVert, who is best zigging and zagging around defenses like a wide receiver vs. zone coverage. It’s why his potential as a sixth man, where he has more freedom to roam with the ball, is so tantalizing. Brown, on the other, hand, is explosive running the floor. Here, he gets coast to coast in a hurry, fills the lane properly, and explodes to the rim.
It’s early, but I’m a big fan of Brown’s inclusion in the starting lineup, even when KD returns. Kyrie and KD could create half court offense, where Brown’s biggest area of concern lies, playing 2-on-5. But the former Piston can add immense value amidst chaos. When there’s a sudden transition or semi-transition opportunity, or maybe a loose ball, it never hurts to have an explosive athlete who can handle and pass on the floor. Bruce Brown is just that, as well as an eye-popping on-ball defender. Start him.
Caris LeVert finds a rhythm
It’s no secret that Caris LeVert has been struggling to start the ’20-’21 season. Early on, the game plan for LeVert seemed to be to shoot as much as possible. The bench unit struggled mightily, in part because he was simply not finding open shooters on the perimeter. LeVert’s drives either ended in a shot attempt or the occasional pass to Jarrett Allen on the inside. The 26-year-old has shown proficiency with his interior passing, he and Allen had a near-unstoppable connection in The Bubble, but his inside-out passing was non-existent through the first four games this season. During the Brooklyn Nets three-game losing streak, LeVert showed more willingness to kick out to shooters. But while that was the first step in improving his offensive production, there’s still more ground for him to cover. Tuesday night at Barclays, he showed what must be done.
Take a look at the above drive, where Joe Ingles grants him a clear path to Rudy Gobert’s chest. Instead, LeVert fiddles around and makes sure he gets Ingles trapped behind him, which is not necessarily a poor choice. The problem is, he does it to create a fadeaway 10-footer. It’s simply not an efficient shot, but LeVert loves these. The problem is when they’re not falling, he had not found a second option to create offense. But Caris LeVert has too much explosiveness in his game to keep settling for those difficult looks; he’s not D’Angelo Russell, who can make up, in part, for a lack of explosiveness with extraordinary touch from the short mid-range. To put it simply, Caris LeVert has not been generating enough easy looks for himself as commander of the second unit. Now, watch this drive from later in the game:
Here, LeVert doesn’t settle for a midrange look, even though the lane is clogged. He gets into Gobert’s chest for a clean look at rim, a look that he’ll make at a much higher rate than some off-balance floater. Yet, even with the miss, he pulls Gobert out of the play and opens up Allen for an offensive rebound, who gets fouled. LeVert applies much more pressure to the defense when he gets the ball deeper into the lane. Attacking with more gusto also gets him in a rhythm, either through layups or foul shots. It’ll lead to more of his beloved floaters dropping in, and more defensive collapse to the paint, which will open up perimeter shooters.
The Brooklyn Nets put Joe Harris in with the second unit vs. Utah; if that continues, LeVert will have more space to operate. He’s also played a large chunk of his minutes with Landry Shamet, who should produce a similar effect. The key for LeVert, and the Nets’ bench unit as a whole, is paint pressure. The more of it he applies, the more smoothly the offense should run.
How Jarrett Allen bolsters the defense
Possession of the Night
This ‘Possession of the Night’ is actually a twofer. First, Jarrett Allen makes one of the blocks of the season thus far in the NBA. Not to oversell it, but it’s just an incredible second effort. Look at his position at the moment Rudy Gobert catches the ball. Next, Bruce Brown grabs the ball and races down court, all the way into the teeth of the paint, before delivering the ball to Taurean Prince for a wide-open transition 3. Nearly everything that Bruce Brown and Jarrett Allen can provide as starters is on display within these ten seconds.
Brooklyn Nets Extras
- The Jarrett Allen-Kyrie Irving PnR connection grows stronger by the day. Allen is playing off of Irving’s drives and presenting himself as a target more and more; it comes with extended playing time together. Eight games straight where they’ve been on the court together is as long as any stretch they had together last year. Allen putting Gobert on a poster off a slick behind-the-back feed from Irving probably doesn’t happen in 2019-’20.
- Jeff Green continued showing some switchability in Tuesday’s affair. He stuck to Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson on multiple possessions, proving his value to Brooklyn as an overall solid team defender. There’s nothing in this league Uncle Jeff hasn’t seen or done; he is undoubtedly the vet of this group.
- Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot has become a timely baseline cutter. It’s very similar to what Rodions Kurucs showed in his first two seasons. Turn your head away from TLC in the corner for a second and he’s at the rim, laying the ball up.
- One more note on Caris LeVert: He needs to exercise some patience in ball-screen situations. There were a handful of times vs. Utah where Jarrett Allen tried to screen for him, but couldn’t get in position because LeVert was already jitterbugging with the ball. There’s a lack of rhythm and feel to Caris’ game right now that was there in The Bubble.
- Taurean Prince is steadily improving. In Philadelphia, Doc Rivers has talked a lot about forcing Tobias Harris to make quicker decisions with the ball. Harris has been doing so, and just won Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Prince could use more of the same advice, and perhaps he’s gotten it. The ball has stuck to his hands less this season, especially on Tuesday. He just needs to stop shying away from contact.
- Defensively is where Taurean has been showing improvement the most, though. He is active off the ball, and more disruptive when guarding 1-on-1 this year. He has the physical tools, clearly; for now, the energy is there too. Prince even glided over a couple of screens vs. Utah with ease, disrupting their PnR offense. The narrative this offseason was that Prince would improve sliding back down to his natural position at small forward. But maybe he’s just a natural 2-guard in a 6’8″ frame. That’s what he looks like at his best, to me anyway.