Breaking Down The First Nets Loss In A Month
Eh, what are you gonna do? The Nets were bound to lose a game at some point after running up 12 wins in a row since falling to Boston on December 4, so their 121-112 defeat in Chicago on Wednesday shouldn’t send out any alarms.
Ironically, it was the first time in what seems like forever that Brooklyn went into a game with a clean injury report, excluding the young players they assigned to G-League Long Island. Despite having everyone on board, however, only a select few showed up to give the team their usual production.
Kevin Durant tried to put the team on his back, scoring 44 points on 15-of-22 shooting from the floor while imposing his will on certain defensive possessions, and Seth Curry posted a second consecutive strong outing with 22 points in 27 minutes, highlighted by his 6-of-7 three-point shotmaking.
That’s about it. Kyrie Irving dropped 25 points on a host of jaw-dropping maneuvers, but he needed 24 field goal attempts to do it. Every Net not named Durant or Curry combined to shoot 1-for-14 from deep.
That can happen in a long NBA season. So will home-slanted officiating. You just move on.
Still, it might be helpful to address the most proximate causes to the defeat to determine whether they should be ongoing concerns that Jacque Vaughn, the NBA’s Coach of the Month for December, must address before the Nets take the floor in New Orleans on Friday:
1) Defending the slip screen
Every opponent knows that the Nets’ first instinct is to switch every on-ball screen (and most off-ball screens). Most teams use that to try to generate favorable one-on-one matchups, for which the Nets have been better prepared recently as to how to structure their help defense. Brooklyn will “scram” switch to rotate out a smaller defender initially tasked with switching onto the bigger roll man as he heads to the low block. Instead, that smaller defender will exit the paint in search of an open perimeter threat.
The Bulls, however, found a different way to attack the Nets, beating them to the punch by perfectly timing their screen-setter’s roll before he made contact. Brooklyn defenders were too often caught in no man’s land and when help arrived, if it wasn’t too late to prevent an uncontested look in the paint, the ball would be moved to open shooters behind the three-point line.
The Bulls ripped off 40 points in the first quarter and built a 69-59 lead at halftime before the Nets made some adjustments. They then forced 11 turnovers on seven steals in the second half, many while defending passes to cutters.
Unfortunately, Bulls star DeMar DeRozan went back to his simple isolation staple down the stretch, knocking down three of his patented mid-range jumpers to put Brooklyn away.
It’s not like the Nets hadn’t seen this type of action—the Trae Young-less Hawks used it often in keeping a game they had no business being in close until the final buzzer. Had the Nets been better focused to handle Chicago’s slip screens from the get-go, maybe DeRozan’s individual run would have been moot.
Level of concern: 5 out of 10
2) Royce O’Neale’s regression potential
This game also could have been a Nets runaway had O’Neale not bricked all eight of his three-point looks with no Bulls defender in the zip code. A 46.8% three-point shooter when given more than six feet of space going into the game this season, per NBA.com, O’Neale had been an integral part of the team’s streak with his impact on both ends before he got hit with a non-COVID bug that forced him to miss Monday’s rout of the Spurs.
Maybe he needed another night off. While some might think that it was admirable for Vaughn to stick with his struggling player in crunch time, it clearly backfired, as O’Neale missed three wide open three-pointers in the final 7:31, two of which could have cut Brooklyn’s deficit to four points inside of two minutes to go.
Vaughn was admittedly in a tough spot after T.J. Warren was forced to exit the game in the fourth quarter with a rib injury (so much for starting a clean bill of health streak) and Yuta Watanabe couldn’t get into a rhythm after the refs dinged him with four fouls in six minutes of action, three of which were phantom calls.
Still, Vaughn had to know that O’Neale has been a streaky shooter all season. If he’s in the game and open, he has to shoot the ball, no matter the prior results or that the Bulls acquiesced with relief that it wasn’t KD or Kyrie putting it up.
Even after the rough night, O’Neale is still shooting over 2.5% better than his career high from three-point ranges, set last season. He’s also averaging 3.5 minutes per game more than his career high. The potential for regression is real.
Level of concern: 6 out of 10
3) Ben Simmons/Nic Claxton free throw shooting
The Nets are thin at the five, so one or both of Claxton and Simmons will be on the court for the vast majority of every game. Each brings important basketball components to the floor, especially on the defensive end. On offensive possessions, Claxton happens to be an expert finisher in the paint, leading the league in field goal percentage, while Simmons helps Brooklyn push the pace and create open looks with his ballhandling and passing.
Together, they’re also a combined 60-for-133 (42%) from the free throw line. That’s hideous.
Claxton is the marginally better foul shooter, with his 1-for-2 from the stripe on Wednesday boosting his season percentage to 46.2%. Simmons, meanwhile, made his first free throw after nine straight misses going back to November 25—and then he clanked his next three from the line to bring his season rate to 42.9%.
Simmons took one field goal attempt, a fading away hook from the mid-paint area, for the remainder of the contest after missing a pair from the line two minutes into the second quarter. Claxton was atypically hesitant with the ball in his bands inside the restricted area on Wednesday, going 5-for-10 from the field. Whether they had thoughts of avoiding getting fouled swimming in their heads is not for me to judge. However, it’s something Vaughn has to monitor.
Only two teams have shot fewer free throws per game than Brooklyn this season. I’ve actually been shocked that we haven’t seen more “Hack-a” tactics from Nets opponents given how incredibly explosive the team’s offense has been of late. The three Bulls fouls that sent Simmons and Claxton to the line were intentional in that Chicago was more than willing to trade off easy Nets buckets for a pair of free throws from unreliable shooters. They weren’t, however, take fouls that you sometimes see to slow down an opponent.
NBA University tweeted that the Nets lead the league in halfcourt offensive efficiency at 1.064 points generated per 100 possessions this season. Therefore, the math indicates that if a defense can force Brooklyn into splitting a pair of free throws, or worse, they’ll come out ahead.
Some future Nets opponent will have that figured out.
Level of concern: 8 out of 10