Before the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets commence their first-round series on Saturday afternoon, I caught up with Lucas Kaplan of Nets Daily for a preview of what’s to come. Kaplan provides tremendous insight about this Brooklyn squad on Twitter (follow him, please) and Nets Daily via his articles. He was gracious enough to lend his time and answer an array of questions to shine a light on the Nets.
After the trades that sent out Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, what was the identity of this Nets team, as well as its strengths and weaknesses?
Whenever something unexpected occurs in the NBA, you hear many variations of “See! Nobody really knows anything, we’re all just guessing!” These Nets should serve as a modest reminder that, sometimes, what’s on paper translates to the court.
In the aftermath of the KD/Kyrie teardown, this roster appeared light on ball-handling and general offensive creation, and heavy on rangy wings. That materialized in the ways you’d expect; this team goes through brutal droughts, usually as a result of minimal rim pressure. Spencer Dinwiddie has done an admirable job as the captain of the offense, despite being clearly overburdened, deciding how just about every possession goes. He’s averaging 9.1 assists per game to just 2.1 turnovers in his second stint in Brooklyn, but there are too many Nets possessions that see him dribble most of the shot-clock out with not much else going on. That can be on him, always a boom-or-bust decision-maker, as well as the general roster construction. They just don’t have a lot of guys that can make stuff happen; too many of their (many) three-point attempts are hoisted despite the ball never touching the paint.
Thus, they need to get out in transition, and they frequently do. As the pundits predicted post-deadline, these wings do fly around and create havoc, switching and rotating and covering for each other, supported by Nic Claxton’s other-worldly rim-protection. Blocks and steals lead to the only easy buckets this group sees, but that’s a demanding way to play in the regular season. Let’s face it: No team can go balls-to-the-wall 100 percent of the time, nor will defensive communication always be pristine. But when Brooklyn lets up, things look especially bleak.
Bottom line: This team lives in the mud. They create havoc and rely on Dinwiddie to set the table. If they don’t force turnovers, or if Dinwiddie has an off night, scoring becomes a gargantuan challenge.
Mikal Bridges has become this team’s primary scorer the last couple months. How have you seen him grow, and what matchups is he best against? Where is he susceptible to struggles?
First, let me just say that Mikal Bridges’ growth has been tremendous, and it’s not just a result of expanded opportunity, although he’s had this mid-range pull-up game for a while. But he’s shown a willingness to fire pull-up threes, all of a sudden. He’s diversified his finishing package with real success, and every game he shows you something you’ve been waiting to see. Look, he’s keeping his dribble alive longer into his drives! Look, he’s using his body to shield potential shot-blockers. Progression shouldn’t come this quickly, and definitely not at 26 years of age. I’ve had like four separate instances of thinking, ‘man, it’d be nice if Bridges added this to his game,’ and then, he has. It’s only been two months!
Bridges is undoubtedly the No. 2 option behind Dinwiddie, in that he controls many of the possessions that Dinwiddie doesn’t. But he doesn’t quite drive offense like the Nets’ point guard does, because he’s not really a floor general. When Brooklyn runs handoffs or ball-screens for Bridges, he is looking to shoot the ball, likely on a mid-range pull-up. Deep drop coverage is inviting him to get hot, and should only be deployed against him with extreme caution. I expect Philadelphia to frequently mix-in aggressive ball-screen coverages, with Embiid playing at the level, if not outright trapping Bridges. The playmaking and floor-reading is a bit behind the scoring, which is to be expected for a guy that strictly stood in the corner as of two seasons ago. Ask him to make multi-layered decisions on the fly, and he can get sped up.
In terms of one-on-one defense, I expect Sixer defenders to be physical, to push Bridges off his spots and really get into his dribble; he’s long and lanky, but his base isn’t the sturdiest. Bridges will shoot over you, so you might as well force him to shoot off-balance shots.
This is a switch-heavy team defensively. How did that look post-trade? How do you feel about it heading into a series against the James Harden-Joel Embiid-led offense?
Uh, nervous? I mean, I actually think they match up better with Philly than the other two East contenders, and that all has to do with Claxton. But I’m still nervous. They switch a ton, and that requires consistent, timely communication between guys who hadn’t played together as of January. Many, many moments of frustration have accompanied the moments of defensive excellence.
This team is small, too. They’re long and decently tall, but they’re skinny, and are susceptible to getting mauled on the glass. It takes consistent effort from all five Nets to handle rebounding, and even then, it’s no guarantee.
But Claxton is a truly incredible defender at this point, and in answering the next question, I’m going to explain why he is the key to at least potentially keeping Philly’s offense within the same stratosphere as Brooklyn’s.
How do you expect Brooklyn to guard Philadelphia’s star duo?
They’ll mix it up, of course, but when the rubber hits the road, I think the Nets have to switch the Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls. Why else do you have Claxton? Switch him onto Harden, and I think Brooklyn can live with that matchup in isolation — and please don’t think that’s coming from a bitter, Harden-hating Nets fan’s perspective. Forget the “big” label, Claxton is one of the best perimeter isolation defenders in the game. Cleveland’s star backcourt learned that the hard way this season:
Then, I think you have Dorian Finney-Smith (who should start on Harden) aggressively fronting Embiid with lenient help on the back-side. Maybe, if Embiid’s post position isn’t too deep, we just see a full-on double after he catches the ball, with no fronting.
Listen, Claxton can’t guard Embiid. He is one of the most talented defenders in the world, but he’s just not big enough. I expect outright doubles or heavy digs and aggressive help when Embiid is attacking Claxton in isolation, as it is. So, if you’re going to have to double in those situations anyway, why not just switch the pick-and-roll as well? That may at least take away those easy 12-footers Harden spoon-feeds to Embiid.
What are important takeaways, if any, you glean from that Feb. 11 game the Sixers and Nets played?
That it is, in fact, possible for Brooklyn to successfully double Embiid, but they have to be perfect. There is no room for error, especially once they start scrambling around the court when Embiid gives the ball up. This is an especially demanding style of defense to play, but it’s worth trying. No matter what Brooklyn does, they’re going to need to be perfect to beat the Sixers. They put a few excellent possessions on tape in that Feb. 11 matchup:
Of course, this matchup has been in the cards for a while. The Sixers’ staff will be extra prepared for Brooklyn’s defense, or at least much more than they were on Feb. 11 against a team playing its first game together.
What’s one matchup/aspect/angle you’re really keying in on for this series?
The play of Tyrese Maxey. I know that’s a bit non-specific, but he’s the guy that I think can really burn Brooklyn to the ground, if it’s not careful. All the attention on Embiid will likely force the Nets to double, and then scramble when he gives the ball up. Maxey as, say, the entry passer puts Brooklyn in a bind. If those rotations aren’t immediately firing, he’s going to get an easy three-point look one pass away. If Brooklyn is scrambling, he has the handle/burst/athleticism to torch it when attacking closeouts.
The Nets have to force somebody other than Embiid and, to an extent, Harden to beat them. Naturally, Maxey is next up. I get that. I just think he’s built to give them a whole lot of trouble.
Who or what is Brooklyn’s X factor, in your eyes?
Both of these are semi-mundane answers, so I’ll give two. The first is how well Finney-Smith shoots from deep. Brooklyn is 7-2 when he makes multiple three-pointers, and its offense flows better when he’s trigger-happy. The Nets can’t pass up good shots when the time comes, and Finney-Smith is occasionally a serial offender in that regard. They’re going to shoot a ton of threes, like 50 a game, and some of those will not be great looks. How many of those average ones go in will determine if these games are still close by the fourth quarter.
The second is Claxton’s hands on defense. This is an absolute no-no:
Embiid will turn that reach in the cookie jar into a foul every time. All week, Brooklyn’s staff and players emphasized how crucial it’ll be to stay out of foul trouble. I think that’s a part of why they switch and then try to deny Embiid post entries as well. The modern NBA allows you to be a lot more physical with big guys before they catch the ball. Claxton needs to play, at the bare minimum, 30 minutes a night — he can’t give away easy ones.
What’s your series prediction?
Nets-Heat, 2014 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Heatles win the series 4-1, but three of those games go down to the wire, more or less. Brooklyn (the D-Will/Joe Johnson version) just can’t get over the hump, offensively, in those fourth quarters. In Game 3, though, back in the Barclays Center, the Nets hit like a billion three-pointers to steal a game. Mirza Teletovic went off. Remember him?
Anyway, I think this series goes a bit like that. Close-ish games that never really feel too close because of the talent gap. But Brooklyn gets one on a ridiculously hot night from deep.
Sixers advance, 4-1