The most efficient offense in NBA history wasn’t very sharp in the first 24 minutes of its first playoff game. The Brooklyn Nets’ “Big 3” of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving combined to shoot just 11-for-32 in the first half of Game 1 of their first round series against the Boston Celtics. But the Nets did enough in the second half on both ends of the floor to earn a 104-93 victory on Saturday.
Number to Know
240 — According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Nets passed the ball just 240 times, tied for their third-lowest total of the season, in Game 1. It was a slow-paced game (93 possessions for each team), but the Nets’ 2.58 passes per possession was well below their regular-season average (2.84).
This was an iso-fest, with a lot of 1-on-1 basketball. Both teams switched almost every screen and both teams were happy to target certain matchups. And, though the Nets have three of the best isolation players in the league, that worked out better for the Celtics in the first half. They picked on Blake Griffin, attacked the paint, and generated much better shots than the Nets, who scored just 47 points on their 48 first-half possessions with minimal ball movement.
The Nets began the second half with 18-4 run (scoring those 18 points on nine offensive possessions) to turn a six-point deficit into an eight-point lead. Durant (9), Harden (6) and Irving (3) accounted for all 18 points, making four of their five threes after going 0-for-10 from beyond the arc in the first half. The ball didn’t necessarily move more, and some of that run was just straight 1-on-1 shot-making, but they did get Durant some catches in the post, where he could shoot over Marcus Smart or draw a foul.
The Celtics would close to within three midway through the fourth quarter, but Brooklyn was in control once the offense got going early in the third. After scoring just 47 points on 48 possessions in the first half, the Nets scored 57 on only 45 in the second half.
A Bit of Film
The Nets actually had a four-pass possession in that 18-4 run, with a little bit of movement to free Irving for his three points. Harden gave the ball to Griffin and then went to set a screen for Irving out of the left corner. Kemba Walker switched onto Harden and slid underneath to prevent a cut to the basket, but Marcus Smart was slow to react to Irving, who stopped short on the hand-off from Griffin (preventing Tristan Thompson from being able to step out) and drained an open 3…
Just as important as the Nets’ offense in the second half was that they held the Celtics to just 40 points on 45 possessions in the final 24 minutes. For the night, they were better defensively with Jeff Green at center (29 points allowed on 34 defensive possessions) or with Nicolas Claxton at the five (21 on 22) than they were with Griffin (43 on 40), who was the Celtics’ pick-and-roll target whenever he was on the floor.
But the Nets made a nice adjustment on one early third-quarter possession, pre-switching to prevent Griffin from getting matched up with Walker. Smart came over for (presumably) a double-drag screen with Thompson for Walker, but then backed away, so the Celtics could just get the Griffin switch. But when Smart did that, Harden switched onto Thompson and eventually onto Walker, as Griffin stuck with Smart. Walker gave up the ball, Smart tried to give it back to him, and Walker stepped out of bounds:
Game 2 Adjustments?
The Nets will be happy to play more one-on-one in Game 2 on Tuesday (7:30 ET, TNT). They’ll also be happy if the Celtics send two defenders to the ball…
Both teams can do things (beyond targeting certain matchups) to take advantage of a switching defense. The Celtics ran a play in the second quarter (that they’ve used against the Nets before) where Jayson Tatum sets a ball screen, seals the initial on-ball defender and then receives as pass from a big who flashes to the ball:
Brooklyn will make mistakes defensively, but Boston will have to force more mistakes than they did on Saturday to have a chance in this series. The Nets have too much talent offensively and are probably not going to stay cold for more than 24 minutes on any given night.
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