BROOKLYN — Typically, teams play faster and are better offensively and worse defensively when they play small. The Brooklyn Nets are different.
Brook Lopez broke his foot and was lost for the season on Dec. 20. And it was on Jan. 2 when the Nets went to a starting frontline of Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on a permanent basis. Since then, the Nets have played slower, and have gone from the third worst defensive team in the league to top 10 on that end of the floor.
Nets record, pace and efficiency
|Through Dec. 31||10||21||94.6||25||101.9||18||106.7||28||-4.8||26|
|Since Jan. 1||12||4||92.6||28||105.9||13||101.8||9||+4.2||9|
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Nets’ original starting lineup, with Garnett at the four and Lopez at the five, was OK defensively, allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions. Of 71 lineups that played at least 75 minutes through Dec. 31st, it ranked 34th in DefRtg.
Not great, but not terrible either. And Brooklyn was better defensively, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions, in the other 167 minutes that Garnett and Lopez were on the floor together. So playing big wasn’t necessarily a big problem.
But that’s not a lot of playing time. The Nets’ issues started with the lack of minutes (just 90 over 10 games before Lopez broke his foot) that their $82 million starting lineup played together. It was their other combinations that were truly awful defensively.
Nets lineups through Dec. 31
|Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Lopez||90||96.9||96.5||101.4||-4.9||-14|
And here’s the thing. Their bench units are still pretty bad defensively. But since Jan. 1, their starters, with either Deron Williams or Alan Anderson as the third guard, have been ridiculously good on that end of the floor.
Nets lineups since Jan. 1
|Livingston, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett + Anderson or Williams||167||88.6||102.7||89.4||+13.3||+39|
Allowing less than 90 points per 100 possessions is elite defense. The Pacers have the best defense of the last 37 years, and they’ve allowed 93.9.
There’s some logic to improved D. Replacing Lopez with an extra guard has allowed the Nets to be more aggressive in defending pick-and-rolls, switch without worrying about mismatches, rotate and recover quicker, and better challenge 3-point shooters.
It helps that their top four guards are 6-foot-3, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-7. Length goes a long way.
Through Dec. 31, the Nets ranked 30th in 3-point defense, allowing their opponents to shoot 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. In 2014, they’ve ranked 15th (35.7 percent). And opponents have shot just 31 percent from 3-point range against the two starting groups.
Those two groups have also forced 19.4 turnovers per 100 possessions, a rate that would lead the league. In fact, the Nets do lead the league by forcing 18.6 since Jan. 1. Livingston, Williams, Pierce and Andray Blatche have all averaged more than a steal per game since Jan. 1.
In regard to the how good the Nets’ starters are defensively, we’re looking at just 167 minutes of playing time. But 113 of those 167 have come against above-average offensive teams (and we’re not including the 14 minutes they played against the depleted Spurs on Thursday), so it’s not like the numbers are schedule-aided. They’ve shut down good teams.
And while the starters have played great D, the bench has held its own offensively. The Nets have scored a ridiculous 127.3 points per 100 possessions in 102 minutes with Blatche, Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko on the floor together.
Kirilenko’s health has been critical. His passing and off-ball cutting are two elements the Nets were desperately missing for most of the first two months of the season. Even on Thursday, the Nets were going to their typical mismatches (Johnson and Livingston in the post) early, but were rather stagnant offensively until Kirilenko entered the game.
Shooting is so important in this league, but while Kirilenko has shot just 1-for-13 from outside the paint this season, he has the highest on-court OffRtg of anybody in the rotation.
It makes you realize that, even though Lopez is done for the season, the Nets are still one of the deepest teams in the league, so deep that Jason Terry got a DNP on Thursday.
The talent was always there. The healthy bodies were not. Ironically, Lopez’s injury has helped the Nets find an identity that works and start to live up to their lofty expectations.