Nets Turn To Zone To Spark Comeback Win Over Bulls
Missing The In-Season Tournament Knockout Round Wouldn't Be The Worst Thing For Brooklyn
As the Nets fell behind the lowly Bulls, 22-3, five-plus minutes into Sunday night’s contest at Barclays Center, I was as livid as Brooklyn Head Coach Jacque Vaughn. Though it was the second game of a back-to-back, there was no excuse for the Nets to play like they were in sleep mode.
Brooklyn deigned not to make the requisite efforts to contest Chicago three-point shots, hustle after loose balls, or even touch the paint on offense. The impulsive side of me howled at the moon for Vaughn to remove all five starters in favor of reserves who would simply play hard.
Vaughn eventually turned to his bench a few minutes later, when Brooklyn was still behind, 28-9. One of his subs was third-year center Day’Ron Sharpe. While his production has been inconsistent, his effort never is.
Much will be made of Brooklyn’s record-setting three-point shooting, but to me it was Sharpe’s entrance and Vaughn’s adjustment to a 2-3 zone that tilted the tide in the Nets’ favor. Following a 44-19 second quarter run, they coasted to a 118-109 victory.
Sharpe finished with a stat line of 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists in 27 minutes, but they do not come close to measuring his impact. Make what you will of the not-always-telling plus/minus stat for a single game, but Sharpe’s plus-31 on Sunday shouldn’t have been surprising to those that watched.
His effort plays, creating extra possessions with offensive rebounds and diving after loose balls, were contagious. In general, the Bulls FELT his presence on the floor. Whereas previously, with starting center Nic Claxton a late scratch due to an ankle sprain (joining Cam Thomas, Ben Simmons, and Dennis Smith Jr. in street clothes), the Bulls had free runs to the rim for easy layups or kickouts to wide open three-point shooters.
Still, Brooklyn was down by 17 points after one quarter, so Vaughn went deep in his defensive bag and pulled out the zone. I wish I had access to stats that calculated the contrast in effectiveness between the team’s zone versus man-to-man schemes, but since I don’t, I can only rely on the eye test.
And for one night, the Nets’ zone was beauteous. Sharpe managed to hang back in the paint without incurring any defensive three-second violations, allowing him to help out with rim protection and defensive rebounding. More importantly, the Nets found it easier to match up on the perimeter, even when the man guarding the ballhandler was screened. The execution, which included far fewer sins of overhelping, also limited Chicago’s open corner three-point looks. In many instances, the ballhandler was steered towards the sideline where there was an extra strong-side defender like in “ice” pick-and-roll coverage.
Though Chicago is only a middling offensive rebounding team, credit the Nets for keeping the Bulls’ bigs from creeping inside and punishing them on the glass, a supposed adverse consequence for zone teams. Brooklyn gang rebounded with high energy to hold Chicago to 14 second-chance points, two points below the Nets’ average allowed going into the game.
Thanks to the improved defensive efficiency and their insane three-point shooting that saw them knock down 11-of-16 attempts in the second quarter, the most three-point makes in any quarter in franchise history, the Nets took the game over and never trailed after halftime. Though I grimaced when Vaughn went back to a man-to-man defense to start the second half, the damage was minimal, with Chicago unable to get closer than a six-point deficit before the zone defense reappeared midway through the third quarter to restore order.
Again, it’s easy to point to Brooklyn’s 25 three-point makes as Sunday’s deciding factor, but long-range shooting hasn’t been the team’s problem this season. The Nets (8-8) have converted on nearly 39% of their three-point attempts during their eight DEFEATS, tops in the NBA in games that were lost. Those outcomes were the result of surrendering 125 points per 100 possessions in those contests, the third-worst defensive rating in the league. This team can’t shoot themselves past shoddy D.
Some teams like Miami can function well in it as a base defense, but zones aren’t for everyone; the Nets were pretty horrible at it during their superstar era. Still, Sunday’s result and the way this Nets team is constructed, with a bunch of long, but lean bodies, made me wonder: Can the zone be the solution to their season-long defensive woes?
It’s certainly worth further deployments.
Up next for Brooklyn is a home affair against Toronto on Tuesday night. It is the final Group C game in the NBA In-Season Tournament. Depending on various permutations, the Nets can secure a slot in the upcoming Knockout Round with a victory or a victory plus a healthy cumulative margin over the four pool play contests.
Is that really what’s best for the Nets? Obviously, they should want to win every game, including Tuesday night’s. As Brooklyn point guard Spencer Dinwiddie noted after Sunday’s game, the money for advancing is a significant incentive. Still, if you play this out like chess, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if their 3-1 pool play record had them falling short of advancing.
That’s because the Knockout Round consists of two games, most likely against top NBA teams. Both of those games count in the regular season standings. For argument’s sake, let’s say that Brooklyn wins the Eastern Conference wild card slot. That would send them to the home of one of the 4-0 teams on December 4 or 5. That could easily be Milwaukee. Even if the Nets lose, they’d still be on the hook to play a consolation game on the road on December 8, which might be Boston or Indiana.
Wouldn’t it be preferable in the long run if the Nets could join the 21 other teams who were eliminated and then play those two unscheduled games against other non-qualifying Eastern Conference teams they will see only three other times this season? Since their playoff hopes are far from secure, give me games versus the Wizards and/or similarly lesser opponents, please.
I get that many fans are really into this contrived event, with their wacky-colored courts that have wreaked havoc on the league’s Hawkeye tracking system, causing errors in stats used not just by data-mining obsessives like me but also by teams’ internal staff members. Many of the games have been fun.
But I’m looking at the big picture. A season where the Nets end up in the lottery without their own Draft pick because they fell a game or two short of a playoff seed wouldn’t be a fair price to pay for the one night of watching them on national TV as a heavy underdog against a superior club.