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Clutch Nets Keep Finding Ways To Bank Wins Under Adverse Conditions
Through 31 games, the Nets have yet to lose consecutive games this season, a remarkable achievement given the recent craziness from playing basketball amidst a pandemic surge.
Even when faced with extraordinary adversity, such as having to face the Lakers in a marquee Christmas matchup without MVP candidate Kevin Durant and after a full week off due to an overabundance of COVID-19 cases within the team, Brooklyn has been finding ways to bank wins.
After blowing a 23-point fourth quarter lead on Saturday night, the Nets righted the ship just in time to make the key plays in crunch time that enabled them to escape L.A. with a 122-115 victory to run their record to an Eastern Conference-leading 22-9.
They’ve accomplished this without the services of All Star guard Kyrie Irving, who likely make his season debut sometime after the New Year (and only during road games) due to his obstinance about taking the COVID-19 vaccine, while Durant and James Harden have each missed four games this season. Brooklyn, who is 3-1 in its games without Harden, is now 2-2 when KD has been inactive.
How? More than anything, this team is clutch. Unlike last season, they’re not blowing their winnable games with lousy end-game execution, excluding their previous one before the break against Orlando that should never have been allowed to proceed with only three players from Brooklyn’s 15-man contracted roster suiting up.
The win over the Lakers put the Nets at 12-4 in games that were within a five-point margin with less than five minutes remaining, the league’s third-best record in such contests, according to NBA.com. Mostly, Brooklyn has relied on Durant to close these games—only Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid has scored more points in clutch time this season, as defined above by NBA.com. However, with Durant out and James Harden’s tank near empty in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Brooklyn needed others to step up.
Thank heavens then for Patty Mills, who sank three three-pointers during a final frame where Brooklyn appeared spent from its conditioning hiatus. Mills is now 6-for-12 from deep during clutch situations, the second-best percentage in the league among those with more than 10 three-point attempts. In one-possession games in the final three minutes, he’s now 4-of-5 after he knocked down a huge three-ball with 1:34 remaining off a drive-and-kick from James Johnson to put Brooklyn up by five points.
The go-ahead bucket was designed for third-year center Nic Claxton, who slipped a screen set for Harden and soared high above the rim to catch the lob and slam it down in the face of Lakers superstar LeBron James with 40.7 seconds remaining. The same play had been snuffed a couple of times by L.A. earlier in the game, but when Brooklyn needed it most, the execution was flawless.
Claxton, a 52% free throw shooter coming into the game, completed the and-one opportunity, and, after Lakers guard Russell Westbrook got stuffed by the front of the rim on a dunk attempt (for folks who have been on Harden’s case for his drop in performance, boy, how far has Westbrook fallen?), Brooklyn sealed the game with more foul shots.
While the players are always first in line to receive the credits for their late-game prowess, let’s not dismiss the growth in second-year Head Coach Steve Nash. While you can always point to having the likes of Durant and Harden onboard for Brooklyn’s offensive excellence during winning time, it’s the Nets’ defense that has been even more impressive in these moments, as they have allowed the equivalent of just 89.4 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations, the NBA’s fourth-best mark this season.
Nash has found ways to incorporate non floor spacers such as Claxton, Johnson, and Bruce Brown into lineups to provide essential size and grit without sending the end-game offense into the toilet. Johnson in particular has developed a beautiful chemistry with Mills, often dribbling into a hand-off while simultaneously setting a perfect screen for the three-point artist. Only KD and Harden have assisted on more of Mills’ field goals this season than Johnson, who rarely saw much action in Brooklyn’s first 15 games.
As for Brown and Bembry, both were placed by Nash into Saturday’s starting lineup, which by all rights should have been disastrous given the similarities of their shooting limitations. However, the duo combined for 31 points and were absolute menaces on the defensive end--NBA.com tracked them with five deflections each to go along with their two steals.
In the end, the Nets’ fate will be determined by the play of their Big 3, including whatever Irving gives them, but what has made this season to date so thoroughly rewarding for fans, despite the stress from many of these games going down to the wire, is watching these lesser-regarded members of the supporting cast deliver in big moments.
Nash loves to talk about “connectivity,” which encompasses everything from sharing the ball to playing defense “on a string.” With these Nets, it may not be there for 48 minutes straight, but when the games are on the line, their connectivity has often been more reliable than what you get from your internet service provider.