James Harden wanted to talk about defense. Kevin Durant talked about it at some length. Coach Steve Nash said a couple of different ways that defense is every bit as important as offense in winning games.
So you can pinch yourselves if you like, but yeah, these were the Brooklyn Nets talking about the side of the game where there isn’t even one basketball for them to share.
The Nets are up 2-0 in their Eastern Conference first-round series against Boston because of how well they’ve held the Celtics down. Their 130-108 victory in Game 2 essentially was over by halftime, Brooklyn leading 71-47 at that point and performing defensively at a level well beyond their “we’ll outscore you anyway” reputation.
Through the series’ first six quarters, the Nets had limited Boston to 140 points, 37.3% shooting overall and 33.3% on 3-pointers. They had, over the same game-and-a-half time frame, bothered the Celtics into 23 turnovers worth 35 points.
Compare Brooklyn’s regular-season defensive numbers to what we’ve seen so far this week and the improvement is clear: from 22nd in defensive rating (113.1) to 2nd (103.1), from 21st in point allowed (114.1) to 2nd (100.5) and from 7th in defensive field-goal percentage (45.9) to 2nd (39.8).
Everybody knows the Nets can score, particularly when sharpshooter Joe Harris is hot and getting open looks courtesy of Harden’s, Durant’s and Kyrie Irving’s gravity on defenders. What they’re doing now against, admittedly, a limited Celtics attack — no Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum’s All-Star wing sidekick — might earn them newfound respect and shorter odds in their quest to reach The Finals.
What gives? Familiarity, urgency and a sense of who they really are. Just as Brooklyn’s Big Three managed to play together only eight times in the regular season, they rarely practiced together — or practiced, period — in a rush through the pandemic-altered season.
The playoffs bring their own rhythm. And priorities.
“So a lot of people compare defense now to the regular season,” Durant said after scoring 26 points, blocking four shots and holding Tatum to 3-for-12 shooting and nine points. “[But] throughout the regular season, there wasn’t a lot of practice time. What you need when you want to fine-tune your defense is actually reps. We were able to get some reps right after the regular season was over.”
The top seeds in both conferences had about a week before their series openers. Brooklyn knew last Tuesday night that the Celtics would be their first opponent, and went to work in anticipation of Saturday.
Said Durant: “Everybody here is capable of guarding 1-on-1 and helping each other, but we actually needed to get some reps in and practice in order for our … bodies to go through and mentally to kind of see what we wanted to do.”
The key to Game 2’s blowout first half, according to Harden, was crowding Boston’s players, staying physical and keeping up as much as possible on the boards.
“They’ve got a few guys who offensive-rebound really good, so we’ve got to make sure we gang rebound,” he said. “It’s going to take continuous effort, possession by possession. And we’ve got the right mindset now.”
This was, remember, only the 10th time since they became teammates that Durant, Harden and Irving actually played together.
Nash said he and his staff have “kept on them all year” to mind their defensive chores. The Hall of Famer, who wasn’t known as a stopper either in his career, does see the value that comes from both ends.
“I think they’re one and the same,” Nash said. “You want energy at both ends of the floor. If you do succeed at one end, it helps the other. … I like to push it at both ends and see what I can provoke.”
If nothing else, grabbing a quick and sizable lead like the Nets’ 29-13 edge in the first seven minutes, can make a team better defensively as the opponents start to rush or panic.
Being a mobile 6-foot-10 with railroad-crossing arms can make a team better defensively, too. Durant’s four blocks were impressive, particularly the one from Boston’s Romeo Langford he swatted off the backboard. The four-time NBA scoring champion with the 27.0 career average is best known for what he does with the ball but the pride he takes defensively oozed out of him after this one.
“I feel like I’ve always been a good defender,” Durant said. “Early on in my career I was asked to score … and we had defenders who guarded the best wing payers. But I felt I was always helping.
“It’s a journey as a scorer to try to learn defense in the NBA. Especially as an 18- or 19-year-old. I’ve just been trying to learn from defenders on my team and my coaches over time. I think I just gradually got better. I’m still looking to improve in all different areas — defense, especially mentally — but I feel like I haven’t been a liability. That’s probably the main thing, you don’t want to be a liability.”
Durant singled out Thabo Sefalosha from their OKC days as a model defender he studied for fundamentals. “Just how he used his hands, his ‘stick’ hand, closing out. His feet were quick. He’s a guy I watched every day to see how he had to guard the Kobes, the LeBrons, the Melos, the best players in the league when I was younger.”
With Golden State, Durant played alongside Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala — all tenacious defenders.
“I just tried to take from everybody I played with,” he said. “Also know that most of defense is playing hard and being in the right spots. And my teammates, if we’re not on one string, then I’m not good at all as a defender.”
Durant cautioned against expecting a continued clampdown on Tatum, saying the Celtics scorer missed shots he normally makes. But with the next two games set for Boston’s TD Garden, Durant said something you might never have expected a Brooklyn player to say.
“We know in Boston it’s going to be way tougher to score,” he said. “So our defense has to travel.”
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