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Sorry, But Inconsistent Refs Weren’t To Blame For Another Poor Defensive Effort By Inconsistent Nets
The Nets spent a good chunk of their postgame interviews criticizing the NBA’s officiating following their disappointing 136-125 defeat in Minnesota on Sunday. While I don’t disagree with their complaints with regard to the irritating number of times James Harden has been hacked without consequence this season, they might want to focus more of their attention on the goings on within the team as opposed to things over which they have no control.
For Brooklyn put forth as dispiriting a defensive effort as they have all season on Monday, surrendering a season-high in points while allowing the Timberwolves to shoot 52% from the floor, including 44% from three-point distances.
It continued a trend where the Nets went from owning the league’s fifth-best defensive efficiency (106.4 points per 100 possessions) through December 27 to the NBA’s third-worst (117.2) in the 14 games thereafter.
The energy the Nets displayed in their previous contest, a 117-102 victory in San Antonio on Friday, was noticeably absent from Sunday’s opening tip. Maybe the warm tributes given to former Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills served as extra motivation then but when running with the Wolves, you could feel the team dragging, especially watching Harden act all night like he was conserving his fuel.
And not just on the defensive end—Harden just couldn’t generate any burst on his drives to the basket. Harden was absolutely fouled on a few of those forays, but not all of them. Minnesota effectively clogged the paint with their long lineup and forced Harden into poor decisions with the basketball—he was 0-for-5 in the restricted area and committed six careless turnovers, all of which were of the more hurtful live-ball variety.
Harden did convert on 1-of-2 mid-range jump shots, something he should be incorporating into his act more often as a counter to all these uneven whistles—he’s no longer in Daryl Morey’s analytics cult and he’s pretty good at it, shooting 58.3% since Christmas, per NBA.com, albeit in just 12 mid-range attempts.
On the other end, Harden continues to frustrate fans with his lackadaisical efforts contesting opponent three-point attempts and stopping the ball in transition. However, he was far from the only culprit on Sunday. Minnesota absolutely shredded Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll defense, with former Nets guard D’Angelo Russell toying with the drop coverage in a 23-point outing.
The Nets sent Minnesota to the free throw line 31 times, including 19 in the first half. Even if you believe the officiating was one-sided, I can only recall one egregious phantom whistle on Brooklyn’s fouls, when center Blake Griffin seemed to take a charge from Taurean Prince, another ex-Net, in the second quarter but the ref granted Prince an and-1. Of course, Nets Head Coach Steve Nash had ample opportunity to initiate a challenge, but he opted to hold onto it.
Maybe Nash was too busy with the team’s other issues. With Kevin Durant out for approximately another month with a sprained PCL, the Nets are down not only the league’s leading scorer but also one of the team’s few good defenders with length. So when rookie Kessler Edwards was saddled with foul trouble early in the second quarter, Nash was forced to use his non-shooting wing defenders--to adverse effects.
James Johnson, who was a solid contributor earlier in the season, was dreadful in this matchup, fouling out in 20 minutes of court time. Pin some of the blame for that on Nash, who came up with the idiotic idea of having Johnson guard Minnesota’s star center Karl-Anthony Towns after Aldridge fouled out with about seven minutes remaining in the game, a strategic blunder on par with football coaches who give up possession because they trust that their defense can stop great quarterbacks in a two-minute drill.
The Nets had by then cut Minnesota’s double-digit lead to just six points, but Towns made mincemeat out of Johnson on the Wolves’ next five possessions, with 10 points and an assist on a Prince three-pointer to put the game out of reach.
Nash wasn’t required to answer why he gambled on small ball in that situation when he could have gone with Day’Ron Sharpe, the rookie who held Towns to 2-for-9 shooting, according to NBA.com, or Blake Griffin, who might have provided Brooklyn with some of the juice they were lacking through hustle plays. Instead, the focus was on Harden and the officiating, for which I suspect Nash will be fined by the league.
Again, I’m not defending the refs, who blew quite a few plays and even saved Minnesota from a key turnover when an errant pass bounced off one official instead of going out of bounds. The Wolves then capitalized on the fluke play with a three-pointer.
The Nets loss, though, wasn’t a fluke. It was discouraging in many ways, more so because of their difficult upcoming schedule, starting with a back-to-back against the Lakers and Nuggets on Tuesday/Wednesday. Both games will be at home, which means that not only will KD be missing, but unvaccinated Kyrie Irving, who led the Nets with 30 points on Monday, will be absent as well.
After that, Brooklyn heads out West for a five-game trip versus Golden State, Phoenix, Sacramento, Utah, and Denver. With the Eastern Conference standings bunched up, the Nets (29-17, a half-game behind the first-place Heat) are on tenuous turf. They’d be wise to figure out how to bottle a consistent defensive effort for this stretch instead of worrying about the inconsistent officiating.