Brooklyn Nets: Defensive attitude paying dividends

Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)
Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Brooklyn Nets have ramped up the defensive intensity the last two games and have clamped down in back-to-back wins, allowing just 179 points in 2 wins.

The Brooklyn Nets have been very defensive of late and it’s been a sight to see.

It began Sunday, when the Nets held the Philadelphia 76ers to 97 points in a 122-97 victory, and continued Tuesday when Brooklyn opened a four-game Western road trip with a 104-82 blowout of the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix’s 82 points were the second-lowest by a team in the NBA this season, better only than the 81 put up by the Minnesota Timberwolves in their 111-81 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday.

That’s lower than any point total surrendered by the Nets last season and the fewest the team had given up since beating the Atlanta Hawks 91-82 on April 2, 2017, at Barclays Center.

For defensive efforts on the road, you have to go back to a 110-82 victory over the Denver Nuggets — coincidentally Brooklyn’s next opponent — in the Mile High City on Feb. 23, 2015.

Defense has been an issue for the Nets since this rebuilding cycle began in earnest in 2016. Coach Kenny Atkinson’s first season in 2016-17 saw Brooklyn finish tied for 22nd in the NBA with a defensive rating of 108.0 (points allowed per 100 possessions).

That season, Atkinson had to scale back the defensive system he wanted to implement because players were having trouble adjusting to the scheme.

Last season, the Nets actually regressed, finishing 25th in the league with a defensive rating of 108.5.

After the back-to-back wins in which they held the Philadelphia 76ers to 97 points and the Phoenix Suns to 82 — the second-lowest point total by a team in the NBA this season — the Nets are solidly in the middle of the pack defensively with a 107.2 defensive rating, good for 17th in the NBA.

In three games in November, even including the 119-111 loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday that was a defensive disaster, the Nets have the seventh-best defensive rating in the NBA at 100.0.

That contrasts with how the Brooklyn fared defensively in eight October games, when they finished the first month on the NBA calendar ranked 20th in the NBA with a rating of 109.8.

What Brooklyn did to the 76ers was frustrate them into 28 turnovers while defending the 3-point line to the tune of a 4-for-20 performance by Philadelphia.

The Suns, meanwhile, shot just 34.6 percent and were harried into 20 turnovers.

In October, the Nets were tied for 25th in the NBA in opponents’ turnovers at 12.6 per game. So far this month, Brooklyn is third in the Association in that category at 19.0.

Small sample size theater in action, to be sure, but the turnaround is significant enough to be noteworthy.

After the win in Phoenix, Atkinson attributed the improvement to the continuing growth of this team, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

"“We’re just more active. Twenty turnovers, we talked about that in the offseason, improving our activity. That’s our mental maturation, a physical maturation. We’re growing up in terms of our physicality on the defensive end.“Teams are going to make a run in this league; that’s a talented team. We took it calmly, we didn’t panic. … I was really pleased with our physicality.”"

Backup center Ed Davis, who combined with starter Jarrett Allen to hold No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton to a 6-for-17 night from the floor, said the Nets did what they were supposed to do — finish an opponent once they had them down.

"“When you’re playing against a team like this and you get a 14- or 16-point lead, you want to put those teams away, give them no hope. We had them down and we kept them down. That’s why we came out with the win.“Keeping a team under 90 is crazy. What’d they have, 82? That has to be top-five lowest scoring total of the season. It was a hell of a game for us defensively. We needed that against this team with their offense and on the road. This is good for us.”"

Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and, briefly, Allen Crabbe had the primary focus of the night, slowing down Suns’ star Devin Booker.

Booker scored 20 points, but needed 21 shots to do so, as he was held to a 6-for-21 performance from the floor. Open looks were hard for Booker to come by.

The next two games will test Brooklyn’s defensive mettle, to be sure. On Friday they face the 9-2 Denver Nuggets, who average 108.5 points per game and will be surly coming off a loss Wednesday at Memphis.

Jamal Murray lit up the Boston Celtics earlier this week with a career-high 48 points, so it’s likely he will see the Booker treatment.

On Saturday night, the Nets go to Oracle Arena for a return engagement with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, who beat the Nets 120-114 in Brooklyn on Oct. 28.

Golden State has a little bit of offensive firepower, leading the NBA with an average of 123.5 points per game going into Thursday’s matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks.

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If Brooklyn can hold those two to double-digit scoring? That might just indicate this is the start of something big.