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Nets’ Third Quarter Dominance Offsetting Rough Starts, Dicey Finishes
Whatever Nets Head Coach Jacque Vaughn has been telling his players at halftimes this month, he should copyright it and sell it to coaches at all levels.
Since falling into a deep hole at the intermission in Boston on March 3, Brooklyn has outscored its opponents, 190-126 over six third quarters, which equates to an average of about 32-21. The Nets, who had been flailing in the wake of the trades of superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, have won five of those six contests, including a second consecutive thriller on Sunday in Denver, 122-120. Just like Minnesota point guard Mike Conley did at the end of Brooklyn’s 124-123 overtime victory on Friday, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic misfired on a potential game-winning three-pointer from the left corner at the horn.
After Sunday’s huge win, no one in Brooklyn’s locker room, including Vaughn, was giving away the secret sauce or the trigger mechanism for these third quarter eruptions, other than to toss out the usual cliches about “locking in.” Though Vaughn does add some wrinkles, a lot of the adjustments come from correcting mistakes after reviewing select video clips. Though there’s been an uptick in the Nets’ three-point shooting efficiency (40% in third quarters versus 36.8% in first halves), most of the improvements can be traced to the defensive end, where the Nets have surrendered a stingy 84 points per 100 possessions in their last six third quarters.
Bear in mind, three of the teams in this stretch—Denver, Milwaukee, and Boston—are one, two, three in NBA.com’s rankings of points scored per 100 possessions in third quarters this season. For the Western Conference-leading Nuggets, it was just their sixth loss in 36 home games.
In addition, NBA teams run their best players for most, if not all, of third quarters. Jokic, who is clearly a top candidate to win his third consecutive league MVP honor, played all 12 minutes in Sunday’s third frame.
Yet the Nets, who looked like children playing against men in the first half, held the triple-double machine Jokic to just 4 points, 1 assist and 1 offensive rebound in the third quarter. Brooklyn starting center Nic Claxton only played three minutes before exiting with his fourth foul, so Vaughn counterintuitively went with a smaller lineup, using wings Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale to battle the six-foot 11, 284-pound Jokic.
Like it did in Minnesota against its giant Rudy Gobert, the Nets’ smaller lineup was incredibly effective. Brooklyn outscored Denver, 27-10, to turn a six-point deficit into a 98-87 advantage by the quarter’s end. The ensuing size differentials forced Brooklyn to be more active defensively, with Finney-Smith jumping into the passing lanes to Jokic for two of his career-high tying four steals. The team also made a better effort to gang rebound, with Denver grabbing just two offensive rebounds over the final nine minutes of the third quarter after pulverizing Brooklyn for nine offensive boards (leading to 16 second-chance points) over the first 27 minutes.
On the other end, Finney-Smith’s floor spacing—he converted five-of-seven three-pointers on the day—opened up the middle of the floor for Spencer Dinwiddie and Mikal Bridges to get going. The two combined for 17 points in the third quarter, which included a perfect 7-of-7 from the foul line, an indication that the Nets were more inclined to drive the ball into the paint instead of making one perimeter pass and shooting a three-ball. Even Brooklyn’s bench, which had been a bit of a sore spot, made major contributions without getting abused defensively. O’Neale and Seth Curry reached double digits while Joe Harris continued his torrid three-point shooting (58.3% on 24 attempts) in March.
Now, the next step in the Nets’ growth is for them to come out better prepared out of the gate. Teams that win five of six games don’t typically start out with an average six-point deficit after one quarter as Brooklyn has. Just as the Nets’ plus-64 third quarter advantage over the last six games leads the league, only Golden State and San Antonio have posted worse first quarter results in the same span.
The bottom line is that the Nets (39-29, percentage points ahead of the Knicks for fifth place in the Eastern Conference) have used these massive third quarter outbursts to not only offset earlier stumbles, but to hold off some good teams in crunch time despite some shaky sequences—they nearly blew an 11-point lead, scoring just six points, over the final 5:37 on Sunday after a mere five-point output in the last five minutes of regulation to allow Minnesota to force overtime on Friday.
If only Brooklyn could bottle what they’re drinking at halftime to use for an entire 48-minute game.