A Week With The Long Island Nets
Behind the scenes with the G League squad for seven days and four games
The big whiteboard was pretty close to full now, with basic numbers such as an all-too-robust opponent shooting percentage all the way down to every single imaginable defensive breakdown.
It's a Saturday morning on Long Island, and the Long Island Nets are rehashing a Friday night to forget. With the Windy City Bulls in town, they fell behind by 25 points, blitzed back to a seven-point lead, then fell apart in giving up 45 fourth-quarter points and losing 129-114. Coach Ronald Nored missed the final few minutes after earning two lightning-quick technicals and the accompanying ejection on a sprint from halfcourt to the baseline, continuing right into the tunnel.
The ejection was the 28-year-old coach's first. A bit out of character. And so is the Saturday morning follow-up. It's a recovery day, an hour of stretching with three groups of players rotating around stations throughout the locker rooms. But it starts off with those numbers on the whiteboard, and a film session that runs almost an hour, sprinting through the previous night's game from start to finish.
Nored usually doesn't take his team through the whole game, preferring a compilation of plays to make specific points. But he doesn't like the timing of this rare stumble by one of the G League's best defensive teams. There are three weeks and nine games left in the regular season, and the Nets are sitting in the fifth of six playoff spots. They could easily move up. They could easily drop out.
The message is direct: if you don't defend, you won't win. The film is through and Nored wheels the whiteboard back out, taps his marker on those numbers.
"This right here, and what you just saw, we never have a chance, ever."
The late defensive letdown the night before wiped out a scintillating 24 minutes of offense. Long Island scored 77 points over the second and third quarters, outscoring Windy City by 25 points. Down 25 at one point early in the second quarter, the Nets had gone up by seven late in the third.
It was a wave of offense not uncommon in the G League, or for the Nets. NBA teams widely consider the G League a laboratory for experimentation, so you'll see NBA trends pushed to the extreme. The NBA's pace of play - counted as possessions per 48 minutes - has steadily been climbing for a decade, to the point where the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s would be considered to play at a middling speed today.
But in the G League, 13 teams are playing at a pace faster than the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA-leading 103.19. Nored considers it a key for the Nets, who rank ninth in the G League at 105.17.
"We separate ourselves from other teams in major way when we play with pace," he tells his team in Saturday's film session.
There are some individual benefits, aside from the fact players enjoy the speed of the game. Milton Doyle was a solid scorer at mid-major Loyola (Chicago), averaging 15.2 points and taking 11.8 shots and 3.6 3-pointers a game as a senior.
With the Nets, Doyle is putting up 18.6 shots a game, 9.2 of them are threes, and he's averaging 21.4 points per game.
"It keeps the energy going," said Doyle. "When you're playing at a fast pace, it's kind of like everybody has the freedom to play. No matter who has the ball, you know something good's going to happen. It makes it easier on everybody."
A Sunday afternoon matinee brings a condensed gameday schedule. A 15-minute film session starts at 12:15, followed by a half-hour on the court. Tip-off is at 3, once more against the Windy City Bulls.
Nored drills back the opponent tendencies from the other night. There are some minor defensive tweaks, but mostly a focus on executing the game plan better. Early on, Nored's defensive-minded Saturday film session seems to have left an impression. The Nets are disrupting pick and rolls, contesting shots and cutting off lanes to the basket. They jump to a 15-2 lead six minutes in, and three minutes after that, Antonio Blakeney, the G League's leading scorer who burned the Nets for 41 points on Friday night, receives two technicals and is ejected after a foul by Brooklyn Nets assignee Isaiah Whitehead on a breakaway.
At halftime, Windy City has pulled ahead, 50-45. Six quarters against the Windy City Bulls and Nored has seen enough.
"Should I rip them?" he asks the coaches. "I want to hear from the room."
For assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer, the entire first half has been backward.
"Our shooters are passing and our passers are shooting," he says. "And we're running their non-shooters off the line."
Nored holds back with the team, instead dialing in on center Kamari Murphy's defense. The Nets remain down five after three quarters, until guard Jeremy Senglin breaks out for 10 points in the first half of the fourth quarter. The Nets are up five with eight minutes to go before the Bulls tie it at 88.
In the final minutes, Murphy, the halftime target, scores eight points off pick-and-rolls with Milton Doyle. He finishes with 21 points and 13 rebounds, and his free throw ties the game at 96 with 50.7 seconds to go. But the Nets don't score again. Windy City does and wins 103-96.
"Think about how many opportunities we had to take the game to the next level," Nored tells the team afterward, "but we made a bonehead play."
Two losses to the under-.500 Bulls have cut into Long Island's chances to move up in the playoff chase. There's no time to feel sorry, Nored says, but with a home-and-home coming up next against the conference-leading Westchester Knicks, things are feeling a bit more urgent. There's a feeling of a need to get two wins against a team the Nets haven't beaten this season.
Nored departs a few minutes after 6 p.m., clutching a baby carrier that holds one-month-old Avery. His wife Danielle has brought Avery to what Nored figures is already her fifth basketball game - four Nets games and a trip to see his alma mater Butler play at Seton Hall the previous week.
"She's going to sleep and eat wherever we take her," says Nored with a smile. "So she's got to get used to this life. We're going to be around a lot of basketball games. We're not going to hide her at home."
It's a midday Monday practice after two straight Long Island losses. The Nets led in the fourth quarter of both games against the Windy City Bulls, who won going away on Friday and then won the final minute on Sunday. Nored lays out the objective for the day's practice.
"Short. Quick. But we have to use this as a day to get better."
With four games in seven days, a recovery day two days earlier and a recovery and travel day planned for Wednesday, this will be Long Island's only practice in the course of a week. After loosening up with individual drills, Nored splits his team up into three, three-man teams and goes into 3-on-3 drills that begin with a high pick and roll.
"Three things," says Nored of the benefits of the drill. "The first one is, 3-on-3 I think is the best way to teach guys how to play, because every guy's involved in the play. You can do everything you can do in 5-on-5 in 3-on-3. So we've used that all year. We've used that as a way to help our guys just learn how to play, for this year, but also when they leave. When they go play, they're in the NBA or overseas, whatever the case may be. That's one purpose it serves.
"The next one is, we do our pick and roll reads out of it. So we tell the defense what pick and roll coverage to be in, and then we make our reads out of it. It's something that we did a lot. We kind of backed off it a little bit, and it was good to go back to that today.
"Last thing, defensively, we've been hedging pick and rolls. In 3-on-3, hedging is near impossible. The offense should be able to score every time. So we put them in a situation where we make it much more difficult than it is in a game. And then hopefully when you get two more bodies out there, if you play as hard as you played in 3-on-3 you'll be successful in the pick and roll scheme. Josh Oppenheimer, our assistant, kind of runs it. He's been running it all year and he's done a good job with it and it's been successful for us."
From 3-on-3, the Nets move to 5-on-5 in the halfcourt. It's a defensive drill, where getting a stop, grabbing a rebound or forcing a turnover isn't always enough. Sometimes after one of those seemingly successful stops, Nored will simply say, "not perfect."
"Everything that you're supposed to do, whatever your job is on the given possession for 16 seconds, everybody's got to do it perfectly," says Nored. "If a guy's not supposed to drive a certain direction, he can't go that direction. If you're not supposed to give up an offensive rebound, you can't give up an offensive rebound. If you don't close out correctly, it's not perfect. Every little thing has to be perfect.
"The thing that you get out of it is, No. 1, it's an immediate accountability drill. You know, the second someone doesn't do something right, everybody knows it. So it makes the guys lock in and do their job consistently. And doing it perfectly once isn't enough, that's why we do it three in a row. Doing it perfect two times in a row isn't enough. You've got to come back and do it again. It's hard to do. The other thing, it makes you compete. It makes you understand the importance of every single moment of a possession."
“The communication’s good between Brooklyn and here, so we know the situation that we’re going to be in on a given day, whether it’s a training session or a game. I think that’s really important.”
Head Coach Ronald Nored
In the Monday film session, assistant coach Damian Cotter has the scouting report on the Westchester Knicks. It's the first year coaching in the United States for the 46-year-old Australian. Back home, he's done it all, from running clubs and clinics, coaching in Australia's National Basketball League and assisting with the country's women's team at the 2016 Olympics. He visited Sri Lanka to run clinics and advise in the country's national program.
Stepping back and figuring out what he wanted to do next, he had checked in with Nored, who he had connected with during a visit to Boston.
"He came and visited the Celtics a couple times, once when I worked there, once when I happened to be in town," says Nored. "We stayed connected, not really for any reason. He has great experience. He was a head coach in the NBL in Australia, the top league there. He's coached in the Olympics with the Australian women and has done so much in his career and has great experience. We thought he'd be a very valued asset just because of his worldly experience. He comes from a completely different culture, and he's coached at the highest level as a head coach."
Josh Oppenheimer, who had orchestrated the afternoon's 3-on-3 session, played in the USBL and CBA - before the days of the G League - before going abroad to Maccabi Tel Aviv and then coaching college ball for 10 years.
He followed up doing individual player development for five years working with Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah and Diana Taurasi on a roster of dozens of clients. But he found himself missing the routine and flow of a season. He found himself missing wins and losses. So in 2013 he joined the staff of the Milwaukee Bucks.
"He was in Houston last year and Milwaukee before that," says Nored. "He has a good relationship with (Long Island GM) Trajan (Langdon). If he wanted to come work here, it was a no-brainer. With his experience, the players that he's worked with, he was a college coach, left college to just work NBA players out and then was in the NBA, for that level of experience to come here with these guys is huge."
All three Nets assistant coaches are in their first year with the team. For Ryan Forehan-Kelly, it's his first year as a full-time pro coach. After playing at California, he forged a 13-year pro career that took him to Japan, Venezeula, China, France, and Italy, plus a stint in the G League with the Los Angeles D-Fenders. He got his foot in the pro coaching door as a video assistant with Brooklyn last season.
"He's got unbelievable player experience playing so many years, including in this league," says Nored. "And being a video coordinator in Brooklyn, he understands how Brooklyn works. He's an unbelievable person. If he were to be in Long Island the next 20 years, he'd be the mayor of Long Island. There's no mayor of Long Island, but the town of Hempstead, whatever it is, he just has such an infectious personality. He's such a good guy and so fun to be around and can talk to anybody about anything. So it really made a lot of sense for our players to have somebody that's recently gone through what they're going through, that can relate to them, that can talk to them. It also gives him an opportunity to develop and grow as a coach."
The morning shootaround before a Tuesday night game against the Westchester Knicks begins with a quick film session at 9:50 a.m. While highlighting specific players, Cotter emphasizes again what he had mentioned on Monday; these guys are a bit of a mystery.
The Knicks will dress just eight players on Tuesday night. Most of the players who had hurt the Nets in two Westchester wins won't be here. Luke Kornet and Isaiah Hicks are two-way players currently with the Knicks. Trey Burke has been signed to an NBA contract by the Knicks. Xavier Rathan-Mayes is on a 10-day contract with the Memphis Grizzlies.
And after Cotter had included Nigel Hayes in Monday's film session and scouting report, the coaching staff returned to their offices to find that Hayes had signed a 10-day with the Toronto Raptors.
"You can't watch film on them," says Nored before the coaches enter the locker room to go over the scouting report. "You can't watch two games ago. Completely different team."
That is partly the nature of the G League, and the Nets deal with it too. The two-way contracts have added more flexibility to move players between the G League and the NBA. But even while two-way players James Webb III and Milton Doyle and Brooklyn Nets assignee Isaiah Whitehead - and early-season two-way player Jake Wiley - have seen time with both teams, the Nets have used just 15 players this season, compared to 24 in their inaugural season in 2016-17. For Long Island, injuries - first to Prince Ibeh, then to Akil Mitchell and Tahjere McCall - have been more disruptive to the roster.
"The communication's good between Brooklyn and here, so we know the situation that we're going to be in on a given day, whether it's a training session or a game," says Nored. "I think that's really important. If it's not, if your communication's not good and they send Isaiah here and you didn't know it was going to happen, and all of a sudden you're scrambling trying to figure out how you're going to game plan, it starts there between Brooklyn and Long Island and the communication's good there."
“We’re always talking to each other every day. On our off days, we say we’re not going to talk about basketball, but we end up doing it every time.”
The Nets return to the locker room on Tuesday evening with their brief two-game slide in the history books. They've beaten the Westchester Knicks, 99-75. Nored points at the third rung of a pyramid he had filled in on the white board before the game. Moving up from the bottom, it reads; character, preparation, compete, results.
It's what they were all looking for before the game. Assistant coach Ryan Forehan-Kelly led off the pregame talk urging the players to appreciate their position. The 38-year-old had pushed his own playing career as long as he could, circling the globe for over a decade.
"Respect the game," he told them. Let it show in the way you compete. Nored had followed up by going around the room with a specific message for each player.
The first half is a mixed bag, both teams shooting poorly and the Knicks taking a 44-35 lead. The undermanned Knicks weren't mailing it in, and that compete level wasn't where Nored wanted it to be.
If the Nets got back there, Oppenheimer says at halftime, and played the way they should, "we'll win this going away."
This is exactly what happens. The Nets outscore the Knicks 38-14 over the first 14 minutes of the second half to go up by 15 and eventually run their lead as high as 28 points in the final minutes.
Nored highlights J.J. Moore, who played 18 second half minutes without playing at all in the first, and big man Kendall Gray, who continues to provide a spark of intensity off the bench.
Sometimes, big-time basketball can be a small world. There are several connections between Long Island Nets players and the parent Brooklyn Nets. Forward Kamari Murphy played with Isaiah Whitehead at Brooklyn's Lincoln HS. Forward Akil Mitchell was teammates with Brooklyn's Joe Harris at Virginia. If you'd like to dip into the really obscure, assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer and Long Island VP of Business Operations Alton Byrd both played for long-time college coach Tom Penders about 10 years apart, Byrd at Columbia and Oppenheimer at Rhode Island.
There's also point guard Shannon Scott, who as a senior at Ohio State started alongside freshman D'Angelo Russell.
"When he got there, we knew he was good," says Scott. "A little skinny shooting guard. But we had one preseason open gym in the summer. We were playing against the older guys - Evan Turner, Mike Conley, Greg Oden, JJ Sullinger, they all came back. They were going at us, and out of nowhere, D'Angelo - all the other freshmen were kind of scared and worried because they haven't seen professional players before. D'Angelo went right back at them. We kind of knew from there he was going to be a special kid. It kind of took off from there."
Morning shootaround on Thursday is at 10 a.m. at the MSG Training Center, about 10 minutes from downtown White Plains and the Westchester County Center, where the G League Knicks play their home games.
The Nets bused over from Long Island the day before, moving up their departure by a few hours to beat the incoming snow and holding their off-day recovery sessions in the hotel after the ride rather than back at NYCB LIVE before departure.
The weather doesn't interfere with the travel, but it does muck up one thing once they arrive. The heavy snow interferes with the hotel's cable system, causing reception to go in and out. So the Nets pass the time playing cards, something they're used to. On Long Island, nearly the entire team is housed in the same hotel - Long Island native J.J. Moore lives home with his wife - so they're used to together time.
"We're always talking to each other every day," says Shannon Scott. "On our off days, we say we're not going to talk about basketball, but we end up doing it every time."
They tend to pass the time with the basics - video games, going bowling. All the players describe the Nets as a tight-knit squad, a group that they enjoy being a part of.
"What I'm hearing, we have one of the best teams in the G League as far as off the court, as far the family atmosphere, as far as the trainers, as far as how we're taken care of," says Kamari Murphy. "I'm in a blessed position right now as far as being with the Nets. Next year I wouldn't say that I want to come back to the G League, that shouldn't be anybody's goal. But if I end up back here, I'll be happy."
“What I’m hearing, we have one of the best teams in the G League as far as off the court, as far the family atmosphere, as far as the trainers, as far as how we’re taken care of.”
With the Knicks still on the slate, assistant coach Damian Cotter still has the scout. He walks the team through defending some of the Westchester sets. Having played the Knicks two days ago, there's a little more familiarity with their roster shakeup.
But for Cotter, the details of what Westchester wants to do is a small part of the exercise. The sets are familiar, so it's a universal lesson in basketball. And the walkthrough itself, taking it seriously, getting something out of it, is part of being a professional -- and staying one. That's the real lesson.
Nored's lesson is not to get sucked into the sluggish start that plagued Long Island in the first half on Tuesday. The Nets blitzed Westchester in the second half, limiting the Knicks to 31 points. That's what the coach wants to see from minute one tonight.
"They don't get nothing," says Nored. "They don't get to feel comfortable. They don't get to feel good."
The hour-long session wraps up with a singing session. Isaiah Whitehead turns 23 years old today, and by team custom, is serenaded with "Happy Birthday" by the team's rookies.
“We will take it,” says Ronald Nored as he bursts through the door of the locker room at the Westchester County Center.
There was a fast start and a gutsy finish, but not much pretty in between during Long Island’s 99-95 win over the Knicks.
Two nights earlier, the Nets had dominated the Knicks in the second half out on Long Island, and Nored wanted to see the effort carry over. The pregame whiteboard carried a list of the Nets’ defensive principles. Nored broke them down. He wanted to see ownership.
“This is all under our control. This is doing your job.”
It looked beautiful at the start. James Webb III knocked down three quick 3-pointers and Long Island went up by 14 and put up 41 points in the quarter. But the Knicks scored 31 themselves. And by halftime, they were within five.
“They’re gonna come at us,” Nored warned his team at halftime. “They’re happy. They’re happy they’re in the game right now, being down 20.”
Which is precisely what happened. By the end of the third, Westchester was up by three, 81-78. The Nets had missed all six of their third quarter 3-pointers. They wouldn’t make one in the fourth either.
The final quarter was a rock fight. The Knicks outscored the Nets 10-9 over the first nine minutes before Shannon Scott and Isaiah Whitehead scored all the points in an 11-2 run and Kamari Murphy came up with two late blocks to lead the defensive stand. The Nets held Westchester to 14 points in the fourth quarter.
“Two weeks,” says Nored in the locker room. “Six games left. We’ve got to get the most out of these next six games.”
“When you’re playing at a fast pace, it’s kind of like everybody has the freedom to play. No matter who has the ball, you know something good’s going to happen.”
The win over Westchester was Long Island’s fifth game in nine days. With two wins over the division- and conference-leading Knicks, the Nets are within three games of the Eastern Conference’s top seed in the playoffs. But the Raptors are in between them in the division – 1.5 games ahead of the Nets – and overall they’re still holding on to the fifth of six playoff seeds, right where they were last Friday.
“It feels great to get it behind us,” says Nored of the busy stretch of games. “It’s just go, go, go, go, go. The fortunate thing is we got to play the same team twice – twice. What were we, 3-2 over the stretch? In the NBA it’s typical to play that. Our guys aren’t used to that. But credit to our performance staff for getting their bodies right. Credit to them for just continuing to battle, no matter how they feel. We’ve got another one coming up. We end the season with five games in nine days. It’s not easy to do. It’s really not. I’m glad we came out on the right side of it. And I hope we learned from it. We get a little bit of a break. And then we go do it and finish the season the right way.”