The Brooklyn Nets have lost the first 2 games in a crucial 7-game stretch that appeared to be set up for them to gain ground in the Eastern playoff hunt.
In every courtroom drama worth its salt, there is a scene where the defense in whatever is being adjudicated rests. The defense resting is good in such a scenario, because it means the affair is about to come to an end. For the Brooklyn Nets, however, a resting defense has been disastrous.
The Nets started their three-game homestand on Monday with one of their best defensive performances of the season, completely locking down the San Antonio Spurs in a convincing 101-85 victory.
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From there, things have gone sideways in a hurry.
Brooklyn gave up 68 first-half points to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday before the game completely got away in the third quarter, as the Nets trailed by as much as 28 points before doing enough late to make the score appear respectable in a 125-116 loss.
And then on Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn gave up 68 first-half points to the Charlotte Hornets, with the game getting completely away from the Nets in the second quarter this time. They trailed by as much as 21 before getting the deficit into single digits briefly in a 123-112 loss.
After giving up 85 points to a solid Western Conference opponent in the Spurs, the Nets have been worked over in consecutive games at home by two teams that entered play outside the top eight in the weaker Eastern Conference.
Washington arrived at Barclays Center coming off four consecutive losses and dominated the Nets on the glass and shredded Brooklyn’s defense.
Charlotte came to town with a three-game losing streak and picked up 17 offensive rebounds while living inside the Nets’ perimeter defense, getting wide-open look after wide-open look at the rim.
Atkinson ripped the team’s defensive effort after Friday’s loss, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post.
"“We’ve given up 68 points in the first half two games in a row — it starts on the defensive end. It’s not about the lineup or working guys back in from injury. It’s about defense and we have to do a better job on that end. Right now, we just aren’t getting it done.“The other teams are very urgent. We should look at every game the same. This is the NBA and this time of year, teams really start to make a push. Every team has risen their level, but our level has stayed the dame or even been below what it was. That’s not going to get it done.”"
D’Angelo Russell, who needed 24 shots to score 22 points while dishing out nine assists and committing three turnovers, said the solution heading into Saturday’s road game against the Miami Heat is a simple one.
"“A win. We’ve got to win, flat-out. Go get it. We’re losing, so it’s a great way of us looking in the mirror and not getting complacent or settling. We’ve got to go get it.”"
Brooklyn surrendered a 23-5 run in the second quarter that effectively ended the competitive phase of the game, turning the ball over six times during Charlotte’s burst and compounding the problem by not playing much, if any, transition defense.
Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 15 points against the Hornets in his first game action since Jan. 23, said it’s a combination of factors.
"“Just all-around, everything. Sixty-eight points, it’s probably not just one thing that happened. Of course, we want to be an 82-0 type team. We want to be a championship team. These last couple losses, these last couple games are indicative of that, so we have to be much better.”"
Atkinson dismissed the idea of lineups and adjustments as players return to health, but there could be — perhaps even at a subconscious level — a feeling of relief that Brooklyn has survived the storm.
With Dinwiddie back in action, it marked the first time since Oct. 18, 2017 — opening night of the 2017-18 season — that the Nets had the entire roster healthy and available.
This is at its core a young team without a lot of experience — or none — in an environment where March and April basketball is meaningful. The Nets have gotten a taste of that with the stronger efforts put forth by the Wizards and Hornets — two teams that came into Brooklyn fighting for their playoff lives.
Barring something cataclysmic with the top five teams in the East, that group is set and is just playing to see who gets what position.
The Milwaukee Bucks lead the Toronto Raptors by 2½ games for the top spot in the conference and the best record in the NBA and some combination of those two clubs will likely occupy the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds come playoff time.
The third through fifth spots will be comprised of the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. The Pacers are a half-game ahead of the 76ers for third place, with the Celtics three games back of Indiana in fifth.
From there, you find six teams clumped within six games of each other in the fight for the last three playoff spots in the conference.
The Nets (32-32) lead that group, a game ahead of the Detroit Pistons (29-31) and two games up on Charlotte (29-33).
On the outside looking in are the Orlando Magic (29-34), a half-game behind the Hornets; the Miami Heat (27-34), 1½ out of the eighth spot; and the Wizards (25-37), who are four games back of the eighth-place Charlotte squad.
Brooklyn has five games remaining in a seven-game portion of the schedule that includes nothing but sub-.500 competition and is currently 0-2 during that stretch.
Given the difficulties that lie ahead in the form of a 12-game span from March 13 to April 7 that includes 11 games against teams currently at or above .500 — with nine of those games on the road — the Nets really need to get all five of the remaining games before that death march begins.
It begins Saturday night in Miami, but unless the defense steps up it’s effort and energy, it won’t matter how much offensive firepower Brooklyn has on the floor.