Nets Transformation Unleashing Dynamism Few Teams Can Match
Basketball is a game of runs. There might be a half-dozen or more of such momentum shifts in any particular contest and hundreds over the course of the season.
Few runs, though, can measure up to what the Nets did in Cleveland in the last three minutes of the first half of Brooklyn’s 125-117 statement victory, their ninth in a row, which allowed them to leapfrog the Cavs into third place in the Eastern Conference.
Brooklyn took a tenuous 46-45 lead and exploded into the break on a 19-4 run. Utilizing a lineup of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, T.J. Warren, and Royce O’Neal, the Nets showcased who they could be when playing at their top level, complementing their two superstars with size, switchability and shooting. When they throw in the requisite effort, this team can compete with anyone.
KD and Kyrie are at the top of their games, the league’s eighth and ninth leading scorers, respectively, during the winning streak with each averaging over 30 points per game and shooting well over the rarified 50/40/90 split. Warren, along with forward Yuta Watanabe, have been godsends as bargain offseason free agent acquisitions, A professional bucket-getter, Warren is inching closer to the player who tore up the NBA Bubble in 2020 before foot surgeries sidelined him for two years. O’Neale, who was obtained in a trade with Utah, has been on fire from deep of late, converting 14 of his last 21 three-pointers (66.7%) over his last four games while providing a needed physicality as a wing defender.
And Simmons, for all the issues he brings with his shooting limitations from the field and the foul line, has been the missing piece, a freakish perimeter defender and high-IQ offensive connector. He not only sports the best defensive rating among the team’s rotation members during the streak, he also owns the highest offensive rating, per NBA.com. His impact goes beyond box scores.
Fortunately, Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen isn’t a dominating offensive force, so Simmons wasn’t exposed as a five during the run and gang rebounding helped keep the bigger Cavs off their offensive glass. The defensive clamp down unleashed a Brooklyn attack that should scare the rest of the league.
Mind you, Cleveland entered the night ranked as the top defensive team in the league at 107.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. My one-time colleague Larry Fleisher often tweets extrapolated scores, but he missed this one—19 points tallied in three minutes equates to 304 points over a full NBA game.
It started innocently enough, when O’Neale flashed into the middle of Cleveland’s 2-3 zone and quickly moved the ball to his left to Irving, who hit the open three-pointer. What followed was a barrage on both ends—Brooklyn was flying around on defense, securing rebounds and coming up with loose balls, and then pushed the pace to create quality looks in early offense. I don’t think Cleveland knew what hit them.
Simmons smothered Cavs star Mitchell on an out-of-bounds play at the mid-court line, saving the ball along the sideline to Warren, who finished the ensuing breakaway with an emphatic slam dunk. KD then bodied up Evan Mobley on the young Cavs forward’s hook shot from the middle of the paint, grabbed the rebound, and found Irving on the outlet. Irving, in heat check mode, nailed that three-pointer and then another one after Simmons took the rebound of a Mobley miss and quickly transitioned upcourt before scooping an underhand pass to the open Irving.
Mitchell then misfired on his step-back response, leading to a Warren bucket from the foul line on a broken play where Irving attempted to drive a closeout but lost the ball. Warren popped open behind the three-point line after working a two-man game with Irving on Brooklyn’s next possession and drilled another shot to give him 15 points in 15 minutes of first half playing time.
Irving put the finishing touches on the run with another early offense three-pointer after a stout Brooklyn defensive possession bottled up Mitchell on two attempts at the rim.
Of course, the Nets couldn’t rest on their laurels with another half to play, and Cleveland, riding the brilliance of point guard Darius Garland (46 points on 20 field goal attempts), had enough time, talent, and gumption to force Brooklyn to execute in crunch time in order to secure the win. However, the Cavs never could get themselves all the way back from that devastating run, climbing to within no closer than a four-point margin in the last minute before the Nets, assisted by a huge block by center Nic Claxton on a Garland floater, closed it out at the free throw line.
Throughout this stretch that has seen Brooklyn win 15 of their last 18 games, the knock had been that they hadn’t beaten anyone of consequence, or any of the top teams that had all their stars active. That narrative has been erased in their last two outings, with the Nets (22-12) outplaying the Bucks (I know, they were missing Khris Middleton, but no team is ever completely healthy—heck, the Nets haven’t had a clean injury report all season, with three-point shooting weapons Joe Harris and Seth Curry the latest names added to the list) and the Cavs to move within two games of first-place Boston.
What matters more is the how. Under Head Coach Jacque Vaughn, who replaced Steve Nash on November 1, the team has played with a different energy. With each game, the Nets are seeing first-hand the bearing of the fruit from their defensive transformation—the Nets were 29th in defensive rating under Nash; they have been the seventh-stingiest team since the coaching change. More stops tends to ignite increased transition opportunities. Given Simmons’ growing comfort level as a pace pusher and all the supreme and capable scorers at Brooklyn’s disposal, any stretch where they can manufacture easier baskets opens up the potential for a dynamism few teams can match.
And those lead to good cases of the runs.