One thing has become increasingly clear about the second iteration of the 2022-23 Brooklyn Nets as they look to position themselves in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The defense is not accidental.
It has become apparent that a Nets team is now ranked No. 5 in the Eastern Conference after winning five of their last six games, including going 4-1 in their last five road games with the final stretch from a five-game trip in Oklahoma. City against the Thunder on Tuesday.
Offense can be a concern, especially at critical times, but the Nets will always be able to lean on their defense, and it’s largely responsible for the team’s newfound success after the trades that sent Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the West.
Scoring, of course, was the most glaring concern in the days immediately following the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline: The Nets dealt Irving and then Durant, 48 hours apart, losing two of the most feared scorers in NBA history. who combined to account for close to 60 points per game in Brooklyn this season.
However, Brooklyn’s ability to stop stops, which has increased due to the influx of length and depth as a result of successful trades, has increased the team’s margin for error on the offensive end. It is not so bad if a goal possession is left empty if there is full confidence in the other end of the field.
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Over the past six games, the Nets have a defensive rating of 105.7, or 105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions they’ve played over this stretch. That leads every other team by at least 2.7 points per 100 possessions, leads the worst defense (the Philadelphia 76ers, who are also 5-1 in their last six games) by 16 points per 100 possessions, and beats both. Eastern Conference championships. contenders in the Boston Celtics (111) and Milwaukee Bucks (114.8) by sizable margins.
Also note that the Nets came back from down 28 to beat the Celtics in Boston to start their hot streak and came back from down 22 with virtually no middle rotation players to make it a single possession game late in the fourth quarter. from a five-point loss to the Bucks, who sat out Giannis Antetokounmpo that night.
The Nets have also fulfilled coach Jacque Vaughn’s wish and become the defensive bully, something he said would work in the team’s favor due to the length of a starting lineup that now features no players under 6-5.
Brooklyn is now home to a Top-10 team in opponent turnovers. Teams have turned the ball over an average of 15.5 times in their last six games against the Nets. That’s three more forced turnovers per game than in games between the Feb. 9 trade deadline and the blowout loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, where the Nets allowed 47 points in the first quarter alone.
And part of that success has been the newfound resilience of a team that has continued to find ways to respond at halftime.
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Only the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — coincidentally, the two teams that employ both Irving and Durant — are averaging more third-quarter points than the Nets in their last six games. The Nets, however, are the best third-quarter team in all of basketball because of the team’s base on the defensive end of the court.
The Nets outscored the Rockets by nine in the third quarter in Houston, outscored the Bucks by 10 in the third quarter in Milwaukee, outscored the Timberwolves by 17 in the overtime win at Minnesota and outscored the contending Denver Nuggets. for the championship, by nine in a spectacular Sunday.
“I think it’s a testament to the group. It’s an open conversation there,” Vaughn said after the win in Denver. “We’re going to watch a movie at halftime, whether you hear my voice or not, how loud my voice is or not, but we have an opportunity to diagnose where we are and how we can turn things around, whether it’s holding on to an advantage or creating a lead, so really just finding a way to come out in the third quarter and make a mark on the game.”
The caveat, of course, is that some of these numbers are inflated against bad teams.
The Rockets have the worst record in all of basketball. Excellent defense should keep them under 100 points. A similar sentiment can be shared for the Nets’ 102-86 blowout of the Charlotte Hornets, who are without star guard LaMelo Ball, even if those same Hornets handed the Knicks a loss soon after.
The net defense is solid, but it will be tested after Thursday’s final road trip in Oklahoma City against the Thunder. Brooklyn will have a four-game home stay against NBA teams positioned for a deep playoff run: the Sacramento Kings; the Nuggets, again; then Donovan Mitchell’s Cleveland Cavaliers, twice in a row.
If he can last that stretch, there’s no reason to believe he can’t be the foundation on which good basketball is built in Brooklyn.