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Brooklyn Nets' Defense Has Driven Shorthanded Squad

After Sunday’s 109-106 loss to the Miami Heat, the Brooklyn Nets are 6-3 in their last nine games. They’ve lost two of their last three, one to Boston and one to Miami, with the Heat and Celtics sharing matching 14-5 records. In between, they beat the Celtics 112-107 at home on Friday.

“Obviously, I wish we were 3-0 against those teams but I do feel like we competed well in those three games,” said Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson. “Shorthanded, you always wonder: Can you compete with the high-level teams? Even after the Miami loss, we came out a little more confident. I thought in a lot of ways we played really well and had tons of opportunities to win that game.”

They’ve done this, as Atkinson said, shorthanded. Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert have been sidelined for nearly three weeks. DeAndre Jordan missed two games along the way. Wilson Chandler has five more games to go on his 25-game suspension. And, of course, Kevin Durant waits in the wings.

The offense has taken a hit in Irving’s absence, from seventh in the league in offensive rating over the first 10 games (110.1) to 26th (104.9). But as Atkinson has dug deep into the roster, an elevated defensive performance has been key to Brooklyn navigating this stretch.

“I will say this in defense of our defense – last year everybody talked about our offense, but we were a much better defensive team than offensive team last year,” said Atkinson. “I think that’s what really got us in the playoffs last year. So, I hope the same things happens. We started out slow and gave up two big games where we gave up a ton of points, and we’ve kind of righted the ship a little bit there. Now, it’s getting our offense in tune. I think there’s improvement to be made there.”

In each of those two losses in the last week, Atkinson has pointed to defensive rebounding as a culprit that sabotaged the defensive effort. The Nets gave up 19 offensive rebounds against Boston last Wednesday with Jordan sidelined, but he returned on Friday to grab 11 rebounds in the win over the Celtics. On Sunday, however, the Heat grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and had 21 second-chance points.

“Defensively, if we can get the rebounding figured out and force a few more turnovers, we’re a top 10 team, because teams do not shoot well against us,” said Atkinson. “I think we’re in ninth in the league at making teams miss, and when they miss and you get another possession, that’s the one that’s really hurting us now. It’s been kind of a slippage there, so we addressed that, our rebounding. Our activity, our turnover rate has increased. We’ve gone from 30 to 28. We’re really moving up. But that was a big jump because we were by far the 30th team in the league and (Iman Shumpert) has something to do with that and Theo (Pinson). I think that second unit is doing a good job causing turnovers.”

Over the last 10 games, the Nets have forced 14.2 turnovers per game, compared to 13.0 over the first 10. But that field goal defense has been consistent throughout. In their last 10 games the Nets are third in the league in limiting opponents to 42.0 percent shooting. For the season, the Nets are ninth in effective field goal percentage allowed (50.4), and over the last 10 games they’re second (48.2). The Heat came into Brooklyn on Sunday leading the league in field goal percentage, and the Nets held them to 38.9 percent shooting.

The Nets were 26th in the league in defensive rating (111.8) over the season’s first 10 games, but over the last 10 games they are eighth (105.8), bringing them up to 19th for the full season (108.9).

“Same concepts, same principles,” said Atkinson before Sunday’s game against the Heat. “I do think we’re bringing our bigs up a little more on pick and roll. We’ve always dropped. So we have adjusted that a little bit and I think that’s helped. I think we’re a little more attuned off the ball, a little more compact. I think in the past, if you give up a three, we’re gonna find you. I think we’re willing to give up a few more threes, although I still like, I don’t want Miami to shoot 50 threes today, you’re playing that analytics game.”

As Atkinson said, one emphasis has been having Brooklyn big men play more aggressively in pick-and-roll scenarios, including forcing ball-handlers toward the sideline. That requires some versatility from 6-foot-11 center Jarrett Allen.

“I think it’s important,” said Allen. “I think for me, I’m kind of the rim protector, but at the same time I think I can do pretty decent going out and guarding guards. So, really my job is just to be active everywhere.”

Allen said it was an area where Atkinson had challenged him to improve, and as when Atkinson prodded him to be more consistent, or elevate his rebounding, Allen has followed through.

“I was just watching clips and we’re getting caught in a bunch of switches—we call them late switches; you know, you’re in pick-and-roll defense (and) you get hit in there late,” said Atkinson after Saturday’s practice. “And then he sits down and he sits down really quick guards — Kemba (Walker) — and Sean (Marks) was the first one (who said), ‘This guy can guard one through five.’ That was kind of the draft evaluation in college, that he can do that and he’s really starting (to do that at the NBA level). Even when teams go small like last night — they put five guards out there — we’re starting to keep Jarrett out there where in the past we’d sub him out (saying) ‘We’ve got to go small.’ But he’s so versatile and so athletic. It’s been a real plus for our defense.”

But as Allen said, job one has been protecting the rim. And with him doing so, the Nets rank fourth in the NBA for the full season with a defensive field goal percentage of 56.1 within five feet of the rim. Allen’s defensive field goal percentage in the area is 51.8.

It’s all part of the continued growth of the third-year center, who is averaging a career-high 10.5 rebounds per game, up from 8.4 last season and the 5.4 per game he grabbed as a 19-year-old rookie. That includes 3.4 offensive rebounds per game, seventh in the league among all players.

“I feel like there’s a physical improvement,” said Atkinson. “The guy, he’s all over the place. He’s on every board. He’s blocking everything. He’s at the rim. He’s like our quarterback on defense. Anytime we miss a shot it seems like he’s cleaning it up. I’m gonna be honest, it’s not something we emphasize. You’ve gotta give him all the credit in the world. And then the confidence is growing. He told me the other day, ‘I found my routine.’ That sounds like a little thing, but sometimes in the NBA you find that, and that’s what young players are always looking for. ‘What’s my routine look like?’ Whatever my routine is, I hope he keeps doing it.”