Nets 106, Trail Blazers 96: The Nets Attack the Paint
The Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiary of some scheduling luck in last night’s 106-96 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, but played smart basketball behind maybe their best second quarter of the season and led by double digits for all but a few minutes in the second half.
Originally scheduled for January 26th but postponed due to what would be an underwhelming snowstorm in the New York area, the game was rescheduled to an otherwise-empty night on the NBA calendar (because of the NCAA Championship game) that came sandwiched between two home games for the Portland Trail Blazers. Rather than make the cross-country, one-game road trip to Brooklyn Monday, after playing Saturday at home and then again Wednesday back in Portland, the organization ruled LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Chris Kaman out with a variety of minor injuries and saved them the flight. With the Blazers down to just Robin Lopez, Meyers Leonard, and Joel Freeland left in their big-man rotation, the Brooklyn Nets attacked the depleted Portland front line on offense and outscored them by ten points in the paint.
The Trail Blazers had some success early in the first quarter, by swinging the ball to the weak-side of the floor and running pick-and-rolls that generated some open opportunities for secondary ball-handlers like C.J. McCollum and Arron Afflalo. Damian Lillard added six first-quarter points as the Blazers opened up an eight-point lead, but Brook Lopez scored 13 and the Nets trailed by three after the initial period.
Nets head coach Lionel Hollins adjusted his rotation in the second quarter and inserted third-string point guard Darius Morris into a bench lineup along with Jarrett Jack, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Mason Plumlee that saw the Nets outscore their opponents by eight points over a stretch of four minutes. Bojan was aggressive in going to the basket while keeping his head up to find Plumlee or Young rolling to the rim, and the Nets scored 32 points in the second quarter while holding Portland to just 13. Joel Freeland came in off the Blazers bench to commit three fouls in about two minutes of play, forcing Meyers Leonard and Robin Lopez back into the game, and the Blazers offense managed as many field goals (four) as turnovers in the second quarter and entered halftime down by 16.
The third quarter belonged to Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, and Young, as they combined to supply all 23 Brooklyn points. Lopez was responsible for 13 more points on 6/10 shooting, while Thaddeus Young added eight and Deron made a layup, and helped push the Nets’ lead to 22 before the Blazers chipped it to 13 to begin the fourth quarter.
In the fourth the Blazers relied on their two superstars to provide scoring: Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard. While not quite in the same (isolation, mid-range) manner as LaMarcus Aldridge, Leonard scored 15 points in the final frame (including 11 straight to open the fourth quarter) on a catch-and-shoot three-pointer and by finding space to finish around the basket, catching passes from Steve Blake and even throwing down a monster dunk a play after Thaddeus Young. From there, Dame took over and scored the next nine Portland points after making a three, back-to-back layups when Brooklyn rushed him off of the arc, and then an alley-oop on an inbounds play, but the Blazers defense was unable to get consistent stops in the closing minutes of the game.
Deron Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Brook Lopez made baskets down the stretch to prevent the Blazers from trimming the lead past eight points, while Joe Johnson saved his first made shot for just under the two minute-mark in the fourth quarter. Joe made just 1/10 field goal attempts but provided six assists and snagged six rebounds to go along with his six points, and the “Big 3” of Deron, Thad, and Brook combined to score 76 points with 20 rebounds and 13 assists. The Nets as a team scored 54 points in the paint and drew 23 free-throw attempts, and of their six total turnovers on the night, none came from the starting unit.
The win over the Trail Blazers improves Brooklyn’s record to 36-41 on the season and gives them a one-game lead over the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Conference’s seventh spot and a two-game advantage over the ninth seed (Indiana) with five games left to play. They’ll play again Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks, where they’ll face a formidable challenge if they hope to extend their home winning streak to six games.
The Brooklyn Nets targeted the short-handed Trail Blazers front court from the opening possession and tried to challenge the Blazer bigs seemingly all night. Deron Williams took Damian Lillard into the paint on the first play of the game and converted on a running layup in single coverage, and on the next play Thaddeus Young settled for a pull-up jumper that rimmed out and then didn’t attempt another jumper until the third quarter.
Brook Lopez took the opposite approach to begin the game, by making the first two quick jump shots that he saw against his brother, Robin, and then expanding his arsenal from there. On his third shot attempt he caught the ball at the top of the key and up-faked the jumper, then tried blowing by his brother for a layup after he stepped up to the threat of the jump shot. The quicker and more agile Robin was able to keep up on the drive and blocked it out of bounds, but Brook could have easily thrown up a “heat-check” long-two instead of taking it towards the rim. More disappointing is the lack of a reaction from either Lopez twin on the blocked shot and in their head-to-head matchup on the night. Was it the lack of Brooklyn mascots that resulted in a subdued Robin Lopez?
The bench unit quickly adopted the starters’ strategy of going right at the remaining Portland big men, and succeeded in removing Joel Freeland from the first half with foul trouble in just two minutes of action. Bojan Bogdanovic forced up his share of long jumpers and committed three turnovers on the night but was active in looking for his shot and in trying to run some offense. In the above clip he keeps moving as Jarrett Jack draws the defense to the middle of the paint and gets caught in a back-door cut as Jack finds him on the move. Bojan then catches, elevates, draws Meyers Leonard (the center in Portland’s small lineup) in the air, and contorts to whip the extra pass to a wide-open Mason Plumlee for the two-handed flush.
In this final play, Thaddeus Young provides perhaps the best example of the Nets’ lack of respect for the Meyers Leonard/Robin Lopez front court. Young starts off as the screener in the high post and brushes Deron Williams’s defender (Steve Blake) in the decoy pick-and-roll, but his responsibility is to receive the end-around pass to initiate action on the weak-side and dribble handoff to Joe Johnson. Meyers Leonard immediately sniffs the play out and steps to his left to help on Joe Johnson’s cut while Arron Afflalo sags to the paint in the event of a Deron drive.
Afflalo recovers on the perimeter and is able to blow up Young’s screen after the dribble handoff, forcing his man to the baseline and into Leonard’s help defense. Joe gets shut off and is forced to kick it back out to Thaddeus on the left elbow, who does a nice job of finding space while his defender helps baseline and gives his teammate a passing angle after he picks up his dribble.
Thaddeus Young finds the ball back in his hands with under five seconds remaining in the shot clock and most of the action already broken down following the ball-swing to Joe Johnson. Deron and Bojan are standing around on the perimeter and Brook is similarly covered while lurking along the baseline, so Young flashes a shot fake to a recovering Leonard and goes strong towards the right side of the basket. Thaddeus shows Leonard the ball to elicit a swipe while he pivots, collects himself, and winds up to unleash the one-handed power dunk all over his defender. That was certainly unexpected, and a nice way to bail out an offense after the primary action failed to generate a good look.
(We’ll pretend to ignore the ensuing Portland possession, post-timeout, where Meyers Leonard might have one-upped Young with his own swooping, one-handed highlight dunk. DON’T TOUCH, BOJAN!)
The Brooklyn Nets are already one of the most proficient teams in the league in scoring around the basket, but the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, and Chris Kaman gave the team free reign to get up shots in the painted area and score almost 10 more points than their season average. While Portland made five more three-point attempts than the Nets and outscored them by 15 points from beyond the arc, Brooklyn used its size to overpower the remaining Trail Blazers big men and finish with a double-digit advantage in paint points and points from the free-throw line. With Portland preferring to rest most of their front-court players over making the trip to Brooklyn, the Nets led comfortably for much of the game by finding good shots closer to the basket. If you can’t out-shoot them, then beat ’em.