In A Switch, The Nets Win Three Straight By Dropping Pick-And-Roll Switches For Drop Coverage
Like it is with any game, but more so when the opponent is explosive like the Hawks, the Nets’ biggest concerns always revolve around the defensive end of the floor. For Wednesday’s culmination of their six-game home stand, we all figured the Nets were destined to engage in a modern-era shootout.
Well, the Nets’ offense certainly did their part, popping the ball around to lay the groundwork for a season-high 34 assists on 43 made field goals, including 22-of-48 three-point attempts, but it was the defense that deserves extra kudos for ensuring a 117-108 victory, Brooklyn’s third straight.
The key was making life miserable for Atlanta’s star guard Trae Young, who tallied 21 points but shot 6-for-22 from the floor. Though Brooklyn surrendered 12 offensive rebounds (a recurring problem), the fact that Atlanta converted those into just four second-chance points was a noteworthy sign of the Nets’ battle level underneath. Really, the only issues the Nets had on defense was when James Harden and Kevin Durant gave too much space to hot-shooting Hawks wing De’Andre Hunter, who poured in 26 points by making 10-of-11 field goal attempts, including all six from downtown.
What most intrigued me about the Nets’ defensive effort was HOW they held Atlanta, which entered the contest as the league’s 9th most efficient offense, according to NBA.com, down to a manageable figure.
Under the influence of former assistant Mike D’Antoni, Brooklyn Head Coach Steve Nash almost exclusively employed a switch-heavy defensive system last season. With rare exceptions, if an opposing big man set a screen for a ballhandler, the two Nets defenders would automatically switch assignments, no matter the mismatch it created on either side of the switch.
Such a strategy has its benefits, especially when the defenders are agile and/or strong enough to handle the switches. When Nets center Nicolas Claxton is on the court, for instance, he has shown an innate ability to stick with lead guards and goad them into difficult shots.
Claxton, though, has not played since October 25 and is expected to be out at least another week with an undisclosed non-COVID-19 illness. That has left Brooklyn with a pair of aging big men in Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, neither of whom would have been all that comfortable chasing Young around the perimeter on switches. In fact, the Nets did not feel the need to have them switch all that often in the previous two games against Indiana and Detroit either. The injury-depleted Pacers started poor shooting T.J. McConnell at point guard while the Pistons went with the equally non-threatening Killian Hayes.
Hence, we’ve witnessed the Nets play more “drop coverage” on 1/5 pick-and-rolls in these last three games than what was about a month’s worth last season. They’re still switching almost willy-nilly on the weak side, but switching a big onto a ballhandler due to an on-ball screen is now seen as more of a last resort.
Against the Hawks, the drop allowed Griffin or Aldridge to hang in the paint to protect the rim and get after rebounds. Both veterans have the experience to understand the proper spacing so as to simultaneously contest a Young floater while not getting beat over the top for an alley-oop. Aldridge even swatted two of Young’s attempts from inside the paint.
It’s funny, for years I used to complain about former Head Coach Kenny Atkinson’s unwarranted faith in drop coverage, but that was because those Nets would bleed points on uncontested shots and putbacks. In the name of analytics, Atkinson would claim that his club would come out ahead in the end. Having watched guys like Young teardrop the Nets to death with floaters and pull-ups against those drops, I was adamantly skeptical.
Of course, Atkinson never had a hound of a perimeter defender like Bruce Brown at his disposal. After committing a couple of early fouls to send Young to the free throw line, Brown figured out how to come through the screens to get to Young’s back shoulder without hacking but still close enough to make him just a little uncomfortable on his pull-ups.
Just speculating here, but I wonder if new coaching consultant Steve Clifford has had any influence in advising Nash to tweak his defensive foundation. Jacque Vaughn is the Nets’ named “defensive coordinator” but Clifford’s resume, with well-regarded head coaching stints in Charlotte and Orlando, gives him more credibility, in my opinion.
Clifford developed under the Jeff Van Gundy tree and no doubt believes that defenses should be multiple, so that all these immensely talented athletes in the league don’t always know what they’ll be facing on every trip. Switch everything, and they’ll find the mismatch. Against drops, you can screen with a perimeter shooter so that the defending big can’t get out of the paint fast enough to contest a jump shot (We’ll see how effective the Nets’ drop is on Monday in Chicago when center Nikola Vucevic pops out after setting screens). There are also counters to hedges and blitzes, but the point is that the more adaptable teams are usually more successful. If we start to hear Nash scream “Ice! Ice!” like Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, then I’ll know my Clifford hunch is correct.
Of course, due to Brooklyn’s heavy turnover this offseason, it will be a lengthy process for the players to perfect the basic principles of any defense. Also, Nash pretty much has to contort his lineup to get his better defenders on the floor so that the consequence isn’t having the offensive flow go down the toilet. It will be fascinating to watch this play out over the next 74 games.
With Brooklyn, the main story is always going to be about their prolific offense led by two of the greatest scorers this league has ever seen. However, even KD and Harden will tell you that in order to achieve their championship aspirations, it will come down to how well they can defend the other elite teams in the NBA.