By Steve Lichtenstein
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Lost somewhere in the mild euphoria over the Nets’ first two-game winning streak of this wasted season, following their 126-98 romp over the depleted Suns at Barclays Center on Thursday night, was another modest achievement.
The rout also marked the first time all season that Brooklyn held opponents to less than 100 points in consecutive games. Only Dallas was able to break into triple digits on the scoreboard over Brooklyn’s last four games.
OK, so it’s a small sample size. And you may want to tag the accomplishment with an asterisk since it came against the Celtics without Isaiah Thomas, the confounding Pistons, and the tanking Suns.
But let’s remember how dreadful the Nets’ defense has been all season. You name it, they couldn’t execute it: Pick-and-rolls, transition, 3-point close-outs, boxouts, etc. They hemorrhaged points.
Well, the Nets are fourth in the league in defensive efficiency (99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) during this four-game stretch, according to NBA.com. Previously they were ranked 28th at 109.4 points allowed.
Having better defensive players like sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and rookie wing Caris LeVert in the starting lineup has made a difference in the Nets’ identity, but there’s more to it.
“I think we’ve just been more aggressive, playing with more energy,” Nets center Brook Lopez said. “We’ve been helping the helper very well — it’s all a connection. We’ve just been there for each other. We’ll have our big come over and get a verticality and we have our (guard) back to come over and help — it’s just a constant, contagious effort.”
Lopez’s lack of foot speed is still a huge issue for the Nets’ defense. The Mavs pulled away and the Pistons roared back from a nine-point deficit in their respective fourth quarters because they went out of their way to run pick-and-rolls at Lopez, who let J.J. Barea and then Ish Smith take, and make, a series of uncontested shots coming around screens.
On the other hand, Nets general manager Sean Marks has prioritized upgrading the team’s overall defensive talent surrounding Lopez since the start of the season. Spencer Dinwiddie, Quincy Acy and, most recently, K.J. McDaniels have all made noticeable contributions.
“Our new guys have helped us on the defensive end,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I think Quincy has given us a big lift with his activity and his length. He has got great hands. Spencer has been really good. So it has been a combination of personnel and our willingness to keep playing this thing out and keep improving defensively.”
McDaniels, who was acquired from Houston at the trade deadline for the whopping sum of $75,000, was the Nets’ energizer against the Suns. Brooklyn was down 25-13 after just eight minutes when McDaniels entered the contest. The Suns’ lead was cut to 38-37 by the time he took a seat with six minutes left in the first half.
“There was a stretch where the second unit decided, ‘OK, we’re going to defend,’” Atkinson said. “We started denying passes. We started making every catch tough — kind of what teams do to us. We really got into them from a physical standpoint.”
On McDaniels, Atkinson said, “I thought (McDaniels) did a heck of a job. He’s got nice size for a wing. He’s pretty athletic. He can bust through screens because of his size.”
The knock on McDaniels has always been his perimeter shooting, a necessity for all wings in Atkinson’s motion offense. It’s why Hollis-Jefferson has been converted to power forward. A career 29 percent shooter from 3-point land, McDaniels has connected on six of his last 14 treys (43 percent) over the last five games.
McDaniels’ 16 points against the Suns led a bench mob that placed five other reserves in double figures (for the first time in Nets NBA history). Oh, and he was also credited with eight rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot in 24 minutes.
McDaniels has benefited from the injuries that have sidelined wings Joe Harris (shoulder) and Sean Kilpatrick (hamstring). Both players are technically (and statistically) superior shooters, but neither come close to matching McDaniels’ defensive efficacy. Atkinson mentioned in his pre-game remarks that finding minutes for all his guards/wings will be one of his most difficult challenges during the Nets’ final 11 games, especially when Harris and Kilpatrick return to the court. However, if McDaniels can maintain even a league-average efficiency from 3-point range, he could eventually prove to be the steal of the deadline.
Of course, the biggest change to the Nets’ composition since the All-Star break has been the return of point guard Jeremy Lin from hamstring woes. Although Lin sprained his ankle against Dallas and missed the Detroit game, he was back on the court, directing two-way traffic, on Thursday.
“More than his talent, more than his experience, I just think there’s a confidence. I compare it to football like when you have your starting quarterback command the huddle. (Lin) commands the huddle,” Atkinson said. “He’s a big reason why we’re improving and he’s helping our young guys improve faster with his presence.”
With Lin, the Nets have been no joke. They’re 6-7 in March and have a handful of winnable games coming up, provided the organization doesn’t shut Lopez and/or Lin down early. There has even been some social media chatter about how the 15-56 Nets could possibly make up the five games they’re behind the freefalling Lakers by season’s end.
Most importantly, they’re night-and-day from where they were at the start of the season. Again, it’s about progress, not just process.
“I think we’re starting to see more consistency from the young guys,” Lin said. “And I think now that we have guys clicking and settling into roles and we have continuity. You’re seeing a much more dangerous team.”
For a change, it’s starting to happen on both ends of the floor.
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