Recapping the Brooklyn Nets’ Win vs. the Atlanta Hawks

Normally, our postgame recaps are formatted into three main takeaways. But I wanted to take this one to talk about a trend we’ve been seeing recently that fully materialized on Wednesday night. The Brooklyn Nets have found a defensive identity. A sensical one, and perhaps, a damn good one. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Nets are giving 86.6 points per 100 half-court plays, a mark that ranks sixth in the league. A far cry from last year’s regular season, and the team many expected Brooklyn to be this season.

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There have been signs of slippage, though. Both in the effort and communication departments. The Miami Heat exposed them with simple slip cuts and screen-the-screener actions. There have been nights of demolition on the defensive glass, and the Nets aren’t the ones with the pry bars. But during this current three-game win streak, that’s been anything but the case.

How are they doing it?

Not how you’d expect. These aren’t the ‘switch everything’ Nets of last year, and for good reason. Asking LaMarcus Aldridge to defend on the perimeter is bad enough in theory that we don’t need to see it in practice. But he’s been unstoppable at times, or at the very least very valuable, offensively. Brooklyn has to find a way to keep him on the court. And the guard rotation has Bruce Brown, DeAndre’ Bembry, Jevon Carter, and Patty Mills in it. The solution has been as straightforward as it seems. Have those guys, who are above-average to downright excellent pressuring ball-handlers, chase attackers over screens, and funnel them towards the big bodies down low.

To be clear, the Nets haven’t just employed a drop coverage with Aldridge on the court. All the bigs, even down to Mr. Switch, Nic Claxton, when he was available, have gotten reps in drop coverage. But it’s working because of those guards. This defense is actually built from the outside in. Granted, there’s no real screen set here, but it’s easy to see why Trae Young shot 8-22 vs. Brooklyn when Bembry is getting up in his jersey like this:

That intensity at the point-of-attack makes everybody else’s job easier, including Aldridge’s. The Nets have done an excellent job at minimizing the space he has to defend in, and it’s why he’s looked quite solid on that end of the court. This play deserves a quick breakdown (sound on):

Ultimately, that defense is what guided the Nets to a victory over the Hawks, and not just because it was strategically effective. For the first time since maybe the New Jersey teams the City Edition uniforms were honoring, the Nets played with a chaotic energy and force that permeated the game as a whole. We saw high-level athletes in Brown and Bembry able to defend aggressively on the perimeter, blowing up handoffs or blocking pull-up jumpsuits from behind.

For a team that has looked old, slow, and frankly weak at times this season, it was a shock to watch them fly around the court, and out-athlete not just any team, but the Hawks. And it wasn’t because of personnel changes either. There are two slow-footed bigs on the floor here, and it doesn’t matter, because Bembry is able to slide all the way over in help and still make a furious closeout:

And this is the part where I talk about Joe Harris. While always a competent competitor on defense, he could hardly be considered impactful. But at age 30, he’s turned one of his only weaknesses into a strength. A newfound ability (I really have no idea where this came from) to navigate screens has been on display all season, but particularly on Wednesday vs. the Hawks. This possession vs. Bogdan Bogdanovic was not an isolated incident:

Not to mention the versatility he displayed, banging with John Collins in the mid-post area. If he can provide impactful point-of-attack defense while holding his on vs. size mismatches, as he did vs. Atlanta, his impact for the Nets grows even bigger.

The bottom line is Brooklyn has been guarding as of late, shutting down Atlanta in the second half. And it’s not due to fancy schemes or a dominant individual. It’s thrilling to watch guards dig into their assignments 30 feet from the basket, and, right now, extremely effective.

Other Observations

  • Brooklyn’s City Edition uniforms and court was a smashing success. I wrote about the gratification of the organization embracing their New Jersey history, but Wednesday was more special than we could have imagined.
  • Paul Millsap has been excellent lately, consistently applying pressure on the paint off the dribble. And once he gets there, he’s always making the right decision, often finding shooters on the perimeter. If this eight-game sample size is any indicator, he is flat-out better than Blake Griffin. Neither of them are shooting threes well, but Millsap is finding more ways to affect the game.
  • Kevin Durant. That’s it.
  • James Harden still has his moments, but is an excellent rebounder when engaged. His box-outs are helping to allow Brooklyn’s smaller lineups to subsist on the glass.