The box score from Wednesday night’s season opener will tell you the Nets shot 49% from the floor and 37% from beyond the arc. It will say they took more free throws than the Celtics and made more, and at a better rate, that they out-rebounded Boston and that their bench poured in 46 points.
It might be hard to imagine those snapshot numbers accompanying a game in which the Nets were convincingly blown out and needed a prolific-but-meaningless garbage-time final frame to avoid losing by 30 points. Unless, of course, you had the distinct misfortune of watching them play what I suppose we will charitably refer to as defense, even while it much more apparently resembled a conveyor belt.
Holy cow, they were a train wreck.
The Celtics are, for now, exactly no one’s idea of an offensive juggernaut, but Brad Stevens’ playbook plus several lineups capable of playing a frisky-if-ultimately-underpowered five-out style will keep them performing above their talent-level. This should not be understood to mean that what happened last night can be attributed to much of what the Celtics did. To the naked eye they seemed to be content working the ball to whoever was open, the popularly-lauded taking of whatever the defense gave them. Of course, in this case, the Nets defense was in a profoundly giving mood.
Here’s an example, from the portion of last night’s game that was actually competitive:
Rajon Rondo handles the ball at the top, Kevin Garnett is playing Jared Sullinger tight, and Mason Plumlee is following Kelly Olynyk as he moves to set a pick on Deron Williams. No big deal.
Olynyk sets the pick to Rondo’s right, and this is where things get screwy. Plumlee shows hard on the pick, allowing Olynyk a clean run to the rim and requiring that someone help down. Garnett is the obvious candidate, as the only other rim protector on the floor and the man closest to the basket.
Garnett slid down to pick up Olynyk on the block and Williams stayed on Rondo, but Plumlee is in no man’s land. Joe Johnson could either rotate over to Sullinger and force a skip pass, flash to Sullinger just for show, or just kinda hang out and do nothing. One way or another, someone needs to find their way to Sullinger, or else…
The word you’re looking for here is [gulp].
Johnson contests way too late and Plumlee manages to find his way to the furthest point from any Celtics player on that entire half of the court.
Because Olynyk and Sullinger are willing and capable three-point-shooters, it behooves opposing defenses to keep their defenders engaged up high against the pick-and-roll, but executing that strategy will require a level of organization and communication that was not evident in Brooklyn’s defense last night.
Here’s another early example:
Again, Rondo handles at the top, Garnett is tight on Sullinger, and Plumlee follows Olynyk as he races up to set a screen. The Celtics are going five-out here.
Oh no! Olynyk slipped the screen, just as Plumlee took another hedge position. Now either Plumlee needs to chase Olynyk like hell or another Nets defender needs to rotate off a shooter and give help.
A couple of bad things have happened, here. Joe Johnson rotated down to help but is notably not between Olynyk and the basket, and Plumlee is, again, in no man’s land, behind the ball and headed just about literally nowhere, fast. Rondo has his choice of Jeff Green wide open on the wing or Olynyk in the paint.
Ouch. Despite rotating to Olynyk’s hip, Johnson is unable to contest either the catch or the shot, while Plumlee is, again, at the point on the floor that is furthest from any Celtics player.
One more, just for grim edification. This time the Nets defense will collapse without the Celtics creating any useful spacing at all:
Mirza Teletovic fights Brandon Bass for position in the paint, Rondo handles at the top, while Garnett checks a trailing Tyler Zeller. Note that Boston’s Jeff Green is also lurking near the paint, allowing Alan Anderson to stay more-or-less between the ball and the basket.
Garnett, perhaps anticipating a Zeller screen, takes the Plumlee outrageous-hedge position, while Jarrett Jack works his way well under Zeller’s… whatever that is. With a non-shooter like Rondo handling and a non-shooter like Zeller as the screen man, this might be a good time for Garnett to abandon the show and retreat to his man, and the Nets can behave like any other sensible NBA defense and dare Rondo to beat them with perimeter jumpers.
Brandon Bass leaks to the elbow, Jack sags dramatically off Rondo, and Garnett waits until Zeller is alone under the basket to point in utter futility for a switch with Teletovic, who is caught in no man’s land. You’ll never guess what happens next.
Right you are!
If there’s a common theme here, it’s aggressive hedging on pick-and-roll action without an apparent strategy for how to recover against virtually anything that could conceivably follow a pick-and-roll. They’ve yielded an uncontested three-pointer from the top of the key on the first pass after the screen, an uncontested layup by the roll man with the floor spaced, and an uncontested dunk by the roll man with the paint packed. It’s a story of an incoherent defensive plan executed with minimal cohesion, and communication that is seemingly only deployed in the drawing of everyone’s attention to the extent of its failures. Hey, Teletovic, look how open I left my man!
Some of this stuff will iron itself out over the course of the season, and the Nets will likely (hopefully) abandon some of the aggressive hedging once Lopez is back in action. Plumlee’s confusion can potentially be explained away by the time he spent this summer practicing and playing with the US Men’s National Team, executing a defensive strategy designed by Tom Thibodeau that calls upon its bigs to sag back against the pick-and-roll, and this is, after all, their first season under new coach Lionel Hollins. Look for the Nets to clean up and refine their approach to pick-and-roll defense. If they don’t, this will be a very long season.