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It Might Be Time For The Nets To Dust Off Cam Thomas
And Other Suggestions To Help Brooklyn Get Through KD’s Absence
Don’t believe the spin coming out of the Nets’ locker room in the aftermath of Sunday’s 112-102 loss to youthful Oklahoma City, Brooklyn’s second straight home defeat following the MCL sprain to Kevin Durant in Miami a week ago—this team is in just as much trouble as they were last season when their superstar forward was waylaid for 21 games with a knee injury.
That club went 5-16 in that stretch without Durant, who, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, is expected to miss another three-or-four weeks. The Nets, who embark on a five-game road trip starting on Tuesday in San Antonio, could again very easily tumble down the Eastern Conference standings during that interval. Dropping another game to the lowly Spurs would set off all sorts of alarms.
Because it’s one thing for the Nets to fall short against the NBA-leading Celtics, 109-98, on Thursday; the manner in which they couldn’t match up on Sunday should require further examination. In addition to missing KD, the Nets also played the Thunder without Ben Simmons, whose surgically-repaired back flared up in warm-ups. That by itself isn’t enough to explain it. By all accounts from those inside the Nets locker room, this team should have the depth to withstand these absences.
Yet, for a second consecutive game, Brooklyn’s offense went into the tank in the fourth quarter. In those final frames, the Nets combined to shoot 14-for-42 (33%) from the floor, including 4-for-20 (20%) from behind the three-point arc. They got to the free throw line a mere eight times while registering an assist-to-turnover ratio of 7:7. The production outage carried over to the defensive end, where the Nets surrendered 37 points on Sunday as the Thunder finally started to connect on the majority of their wide-open three-pointers. -
Here are three adjustments that I’d recommend that Nets Head Coach Jacque Vaughn try to stem what could be another avalanche of defeats during KD’s convalescence:
1) Dust off Cam Thomas
One of the main aspects of basketball where KD is sorely missed is that the Nets lack offensive creativity. Other than Kyrie Irving, who hasn’t stepped up in the two games as the go-to guy, averaging 19.5 points per game on a shooting split of 36/22/75, which Net can get a bucket on what the incomparable radio analyst Tim Capstraw calls “the play after the play”? When the offensive set bogs down and Brooklyn has to try to get off a quality look with the shot clock a factor, they have too many robotic, stand-still shooters on the court and not enough creators. That includes T.J. Warren, who attacked one OKC closeout so slowly that the Thunder had time to help out on what initially appeared to be a clear lane to the rim. Seth Curry’s shooting efficiency has been excellent in January and he had some terrific finishes around the basket against the Thunder, but that’s not his game. Too many Nets possessions turned into dumpster fires because Curry was dribbling around looking for space to get off a shot—for all the time he’s had with the ball in his hands, he has totaled two assists in the last two games.
Not that he’s known for passing, but Cam Thomas might be helpful to the cause at this juncture. Among Vaughn’s available players, the sophomore guard is more adept at probing a defense to initiate offense than anyone else other Kyrie. When tasked with the alpha male role in that crazy December 10 victory in Indiana with virtually every Brooklyn rotation player earning the back-to-back night off, Thomas took over the fourth quarter by scoring 21 of his team-high 33 points. On the season, he’s shooting a respectable 41.3% from the floor and 38.7% from deep. He also gets to the foul line more often per 36 minutes than any Net except Durant—he’s taken 60 free throws in 368 minutes; in contrast, Curry has shot 24 attempts all season in 646 minutes. Oh, and Thomas also averages 3.7 assists per 36 minutes—not great, but superior to that of Curry and Patty Mills, who is also ahead of Thomas on Brooklyn’s depth chart and saw 12 minutes of action on Thursday.
Obviously, there are concerns, most notably Thomas’ defense and rust. He has often been caught on camera sulking and yawning on the bench--even while his teammates have been up and supportive during Brooklyn’s 12-game winning streak—presumably miffed over the fact that he’s been called upon just once in non-garbage time situations in the month-plus since that Pacers game,
Tuesday would be the perfect time for Vaughn to give Thomas early minutes. The Spurs own the league’s third-worst record and aren’t loaded with dynamite guards against whom Thomas might get exposed on defense. Vaughn typically subs out Irving about two-thirds into the first quarter—let’s see what Thomas does with that opportunity. Maybe his skillset is just what the Nets doctor ordered.
2) Play more zone
Do you know what’s better than utilizing Nic Claxton’s unique ability to stick with smaller ballhandlers upon switches? Having the fourth-year center stay closer to the basket so he can block/alter more opponent rim attempts and rebound.
The Nets were brutal in their efforts to stay in front of Thunder penetrators on Sunday. There were stretches where it looked like a layup line. So, on one OKC first half possession, Vaughn had the Nets switch into a 1-2-2 zone, but scrapped it after a made three-pointer.
He should have stuck with it a little bit longer.
Besides having Claxton, the NBA’s most voracious shot-blocker at 2.7 per game, always lurking in the paint, the Nets wouldn’t be as susceptible to mismatches from switches onto screen rollers in a zone. Without KD’s (and Simmons’) length in the lineup, it’s harder for Brooklyn’s defense to scram out of switches where a smaller player is forced to follow a rolling big into the interior. Joe Harris and Royce O’Neale just don’t have the size nor leaping ability to be as effective in the paint no matter how hard they battle. OKC’s Josh Giddey had a field day on Sunday using his height advantage on his driving finishes.
Vaughn hasn’t really given his zone a chance since the second half of the aforementioned Pacers game. San Antonio ranks 26th in the league with a 30.4% three-point rate, so going zone seems to be worth a try.
3) Coach Kyrie
The Nets have almost no chance to win when their best player has an off night. They hung on for the victory in Miami last Sunday after KD went down at the end of the third quarter despite Irving misfiring on 4-of-5 fourth quarter field goal attempts, but hard team defense and effort is only part of a sustainable winning formula in a league where offense rules.
The Nets simply need Irving to be better, and that involves Vaughn contriving ways to help get him going. Relying on Kyrie to dribble up and launch hero-ball three-pointers isn’t going to get it done.
The consensus tag line from the Nets players as to why they have turned their season around following the coaching change from Steve Nash to Vaughn is that the game is simpler now. Most take that to mean that Vaughn has cut back on the playbook volume and just let his guys play ball.
That was far easier to do when you had an MVP candidate in Durant on the floor to make transformational impacts on both ends of the floor—and then you also had a supremely gifted sidekick in Irving who could take over at other times.
With that no longer the case, the Nets will have to play a bit differently. There needs to be more ball-and-player movement, with Irving buying in.
I get that by reputation Irving isn’t the easier player to coach. He routinely disregarded Nash’s play calls so he could go into his solo act. I’m not privy as to how he views Vaughn these days, but I’d be more concerned about how repeated losing would impact Irving’s state of mind.
That’s why it’s up to Vaughn to come up with a plan to show Irving how he can make the game easier for him. Give him more ways to get free of double teams—as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, a screen setter, or when he’s off the ball. Stay on the complementary guys to be in proper positions for outlets. Irving threw two passes out of bounds on Sunday expecting his teammates to be in different spots.
Most importantly, impress upon Kyrie the importance of minimizing the times he settles for bad shots. He is so awesomely resourceful in creating shooting space using his dribble that it seems unnecessary and wasteful when he feels the need to increase the degree of difficulty further from the basket. Without KD in the lineup, the Nets no longer have the firepower to get away with taking too many possessions off.