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Nets can score with the best of them, but their defense raises questions

When the postseason arrives, will the offensive firepower in Brooklyn be enough to offset its ongoing defensive issues?

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

As a team, the Nets have struggled on defense this season.

There’s always a sense of anxiety whenever the new red Ferrari emits a clanky sound from under the hood, or when a crack in the wall appears inside the gated mansion, or the screen on the Peloton goes from 4K to 720p.

And so you know how the Brooklyn Nets feel whenever their defense springs a geyser, which happens far too often for a high-priced, superstar-stuffed and championship-hopeful team.

As the Nets progress toward midseason, leaving behind a trail of victims but also question marks, their ability to make a stand will ultimately dictate their ability to make a run at a title. The good news for Brooklyn: The Nets are coming off a big victory where they temporarily turned the volume down on that concern, and they also realize there’s plenty of time to apply a more permanent fix before springtime, when the real test begins.

“We’re going to be a good team if we can do that every night,” Nets coach Steve Nash said.

He meant the way the Nets, at various moments of truth Tuesday, handcuffed an elite team in the West and produced their most impressive win of the season, all things considered. The LA Clippers had no real answers late in the fourth quarter, which was a relief for a Brooklyn team fresh from being traumatized by the Washington Wizards, of all teams, in the final and frantic seconds of a demoralizing defeat a few nights earlier.

Quite simply, the Nets are bringing the level of offensive lava that’s rare and enviable and in some ways historic. With the exception of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat, and the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Kevin Durant Warriors, has any team in the last decade or so featured the scoring brilliance of the Durant-Kyrie Irving-James Harden Nets?

See some of the best plays from the Nets’ Big 3 this season.

This three-headed hoops monster is a one-on-one terror, with three of the best isolationists in the game, all in their prime, all healthy. The Nets present a matchup nightmare for the poor souls on the opposite benches, and that’s why, based on that muscle alone, they’re gearing up for what could become an NBA takeover.

They can score 130, 135, even 140 points most nights. Problem is, on some of those very same nights, they can lose the game. Do the math, and it’ll explain how the Nets, who squander the most points by far (allowing 117.8 opponent ppg) of any contender, are contesting and sweating out games that have no business being close.

They’ve given up 129 and 125 to Oklahoma City, 123 and 149 in two losses (!) to Washington, 135 to Cleveland and 128 to Atlanta. The common thread is none of those teams, from a talent standpoint, are anywhere near Brooklyn’s level. And that indicates the Nets’ defensive concentration and intensity against lesser teams is criminally low and inconsistent.

What’s a team to do — between now and the playoffs — to fix their biggest if only flaw?

The answer lies squarely with the team’s strength. It starts with the Notorious Big Three. Durant, Irving and Harden must also be the Nets’ best defenders, if that’s possible. They must bring that same energy at the other basket, and if that means sacrificing a bit of offense, so be it.

Nets have the offense, but can they get their defense together? 

That’s because the Nets are in no shape to swing a trade for a top-flight defender — most of their assets were spent in the Harden trade — and the chance of grabbing a defensive savior from the upcoming buyout market are slim. They’re locked in with this team and this core.

They did bring back Iman Shumpert recently to address some defensive issues. But Shumpert is beyond his prime and almost guaranteed to be on the bench in the fourth quarter of a big or close game. Same goes for center DeAndre Jordan, who was once an elite interior defender. He often has those flashbacks, but is too anemic offensively to get much floor time in the fourth. In fact, since the team traded for Harden on Jan. 13, Jordan ranks last in fourth-quarter minutes (3.2 mpg). Jeff Green and Joe Harris often round out the Big Three late in games.

Because of their obvious status and presence, Irving, Durant and Harden will command those tense, late-game minutes and also be assigned defensively to the other team’s A-listers. Can you picture, for instance, Nash benching Harden, the weakest defender of the three, for Shumpert in the fourth quarter for defensive purposes? That’s not going to happen. Same goes for Irving, as his playmaking and shot-making are far too important.

“Offensively, we’re one of the best teams in this league,” Harden said. “But can we man up and get stops individually? And then … can we have each other’s back on a consistent basis?”

Harden was encouraged by what the Nets did against the Clippers, and clearly, the three stars have challenged each other to be better defenders. For almost three minutes during a fourth-quarter stretch when the Nets staged a comeback, they held the Clippers scoreless.

“We took it upon ourselves as individuals to get stops,” Harden said. “And once we get that down pat … that’s what it has to be for us to be playing at the end.”

Shots were contested, energy was spent, and the Nets discovered what they’re capable of doing if attention to defense was paid. It was a small sample size that must swell into something larger and more commonplace in the coming weeks.

“We have the desire to go out there and do it,” Irving said.

The Nets got a major lift from Kyrie Irving in their win over the Clippers this week.

That said, there are nights when the Nets won’t require constant defensive stops. Remember, they’re bringing a pair of all-time scorers in Harden and Durant, and Irving can break free on any given moment, as he did against the Clippers with 39 points.

As Nash said: “We can be a solid defensive team at minimum … but they have to guard us as well.”

Yes, sometimes, a great offense can minimize the need for great defense. If Durant, Harden and Irving are combining for 80-85 points, good luck to the other team keeping up with that. But this regular season is just prep for the playoffs for teams such as the Nets, who essentially have a bye.

Therefore, this is the time to hide the flaws as much as possible, or at least minimize them. The Nets will never achieve historical greatness defensively — it’s not in their DNA. They didn’t group Durant, Irving and Harden together to win games 85-80. The purpose is to run up the score to the point where opponents are collapsing trying to keep up.

Every now and then, though, the Nets must make stops. And this will magnify in the playoffs when the court shrinks, the score tightens and maybe the points don’t come as easily for Brooklyn. What then?

Offense will certainly get them a high seed, and maybe the best record, in the East. Defense will determine what happens from there.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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