It was another night at the front of the line in the NBA, and another night when the Brooklyn Nets lived up to the moment.
The Nets have now played six games against the other seven teams holding the top four spots in each conference’s standings, and with Tuesday’s 124-120 win over the LA Clippers, they’re 6-0 in those games.
The Clippers came in having won 10 of 11 to rise to the top of the Western Conference standings, and while the Nets had won eight of 11 themselves, they were coming off a loss to the Wizards was bitter for its shocking finish.
“We're playing one of the hottest teams, one of the best teams that we have in this league,” said James Harden. “We have to come out and not embarrass ourselves and we played like that on both ends of the ball. I don't think as a team we have that mindset every single game. Once we get that you're going to see a different Nets team.”
There have been several different iterations of these Nets that have won these games. They beat Utah and Philadelphia back-to-back while Durant was out due to health and safety protocols. Four of the wins came prior to the Harden acquisition, two after. Tuesday night’s win was actually the first of the six games in which Durant, Harden, and Irving all played together.
It’s now been 10 games since the Harden acquisition; he’s played in nine of those. He, Durant, and Irving have only all played together in five of those 10 games, but Brooklyn still has the highest offensive efficiency over that stretch, 121.0 points per 100 possessions. With Brooklyn having shot 57.0 percent in each of its last three games, it raises the possibility that this new group is still just getting into a groove.
“It's about the buildup for us though,” said Harden. “I think this season, we're using this season obviously to get better. Obviously we want to win every single game but you know we're using this season and each and single game to get to know each other to grow as a team to build chemistry and get on the same page. Obviously some games are going to be better than others but I think overall that same mindset that we had tonight we have to have that same mindset every single game no matter who we're playing. That's when you're going to see some growth out of all of this.”
Offense has never been the concern with this group, even before the Harden acquisition, but alarms went off after Sunday’s 149-146 loss to Washington, a defensive effort that coach Steve Nash described as “ugly.”
That had continued the Nets’ drop to 25th in the league in defensive efficiency.
“I feel like a lot of teams are making us pay off for small mental mistakes; like you not switching a screen when you’re supposed to, or helping too much and boom they get a three, and that stuff compounds itself and you make two or three of those plays, three or four of those plays in a half, the defense, that’s the difference between shooting 60 percent from the field and 40 percent from the field,” said Durant. “It’s just a matter of us knowing what our coverages are each time down and executing them and we’ll only get better at it.”
It all added some urgency and focused some eyes back on the defensive side of the ball for this high-end matchup with the Clippers, who came in while living in the same lofty neighborhood as the Nets when it came to offense, up among the top five in offensive rating, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.
The Nets limited the Clippers to 45.5 percent shooting, below the 48.0 percent rate LA brought into the game, but also consistent with the 45.7 percent rate Brooklyn has limited opponents to throughout the season, a number that is actually ranked No. 11 in the NBA.
“They took a lot of pride,” said Nash. “We talked through it, and they responded. The team with the best record was in front of them and they had to put in a good performance. They were really, really competitive tonight. They wanted it and that’s what it’s going to take.”
The question around a team with Brooklyn’s elite offense is just how good they have to be defensively to make a championship run. It’s rare for a team outside the league’s top 10 in defensive efficiency to win a title.
Durant doesn’t want to settle for being an adequate defensive squad that lives off its offense. He has his eyes on being “a great defensive team.”
“The No. 1 goal is to be on the same page and to be solid,” said Nash. “If we can be fundamental in our approach, be solid in our schemes, that’s No. 1. Or No. 2 really. No. 1 is just the pride and the competitive spirit. If we bring that every night, we may not profile as a great defensive team, but we can be a solid defensive team at minimum and take care of the things that we can control, and they’ve got to guard us as well. So I think we’ve got a lot of growth to do at that end of the floor, but I don’t want to make any predictions. I want to take the next step and see if we can get a little bit better, and tonight we got a little bit better against a really good team, and we’ll watch some film and get better again tomorrow.”