NEW YORK -- On the brink of elimination, winless in three playoff games against the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets once again attempted to explain what went wrong. Steve Nash said they'd turned the ball over because they were second-guessing themselves. Blake Griffin said they didn't have the right spirit and haven't been a cohesive unit. Kyrie Irving said they were still trying to jell. Kevin Durant said he didn't have much space to operate, didn't want to force it and was thinking too much.
"Just a shitty game," Durant said at Barclays Center, following Brooklyn's 109-103 loss in Game 3 of its first-round series on Saturday. "Shitty game."
Superstars see fewer double-teams and less help defense when they team up, and superteams are supposed to make the game look easy. Why, then, have Durant and Irving had such a hard time? Is it just that Boston is the best defensive team imaginable? Aside from getting one more stop in the series opener, is there anything the Nets could have done to avoid this?
What happened to the PG from PG County?
Less than two weeks ago, after Brooklyn's final game of the regular season. Irving called Durant the "PG from PG County (i.e. the point guard from Prince George's County) in the locker room and in the post-game press conference. Durant didn't shoot well against the Indiana Pacers, but he had a career-high 16 assists. Irving praised him for "allowing the game to come to him" and "not overthinking."
All season, Durant has been seeing more extreme defensive coverages than he would prefer. Sometimes, teams trapped him as soon as he passed halfcourt. The Nets have routinely played two or even three players whom defenses ignore. It is not a coincidence that, in the first game that Joe Harris missed with his season-ending ankle injury, the Golden State Warriors used a box-and-1 and a triangle-and-2 in Brooklyn.
At their best, Durant and the Nets were able to capitalize on all that attention, counteracting their subpar spacing with ball movement and timely cuts. In the 523 regular-season minutes that Durant and Irving played together, Brooklyn scored 122.8 points per 100 possessions. That number dropped to 111.9 per 100 in 111 playoff minutes against the Celtics. Boston denied Durant off the ball, took away his airspace, took away his driving lanes and made him think.
It's not just the switching and the physicality that bothered Durant. Boston is a sophisticated defensive team that communicates, closes out to shooters and uses its length as well as anybody. And Brooklyn got in its own way.
In the series, the Celtics have attempted 103 shots from 3-point range to the Nets' 74. Even after Brooklyn dialed back its long 2s on Saturday, following two consecutive games in which it took more than it did during any regular-season game, too many possessions went a familiar way: Durant catches the ball isolated against a tough defender about 17 feet away from the basket, looking at a loaded defense, with multiple teammates inside the 3-point line.
You're not going to create many 3s out of this scenario. But Durant is used to finding his rhythm by getting these types of touches and getting to his spots.
"We'd love to [shoot more 3s]," Nash said after practice on Friday. "It's not necessarily the nature of our group. Ironically we have lots of good 3-point shooters, but … it's not all their No. 1 kind of sweet spot, so to speak."
Instead of working hard to get Durant the ball inside the arc, the Nets could have had him initiate the offense more often. Part of Mike D'Antoni's rationale for putting James Harden on the ball six years ago was saving Harden from using so much energy "down there in the wrestling match of people trying to hold him and keep denying and all that." Brooklyn found some success against Boston when Durant ran high ball screens in Game 3, but this was not the primary strategy. The Nets turned the ball over multiple times trying to throw him entry passes.
"I think we were just trying to find a balance of him being at the top of the key attacking but also not taking as many wasted dribbles going against a wasted defense," Irving said.
Boston makes things complicated
Last June, the Milwaukee Bucks dared Durant to beat them by himself and he came extremely close to doing so. In addition to facing the complete opposite defensive game plan to Boston's, Durant was in a radically different offensive environment -- in his 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece in Game 5, the Nets attempted 43 3-pointers. Their "centers," Griffin and Jeff Green, shot a combined 10-for-14 from deep.
The easiest way to explain Brooklyn's troubles on offense is to point to an old coaching aphorism: Offense is spacing, and spacing is offense. Before Saturday's game, though, Nash lightly pushed back against the notion that the Nets simply needed more shooting on the court.
"That's a component of it," he said. "Obviously, Joe Harris is a loss. But we still have to attack, we still have to play together, we still have to stick to our principles. I thought we saw them on display in the first half [of Game 2] and we slowed down a lot in a number of ways in the second half .. but I'm very hesitant to give black-and-white answers because the game's not black and white."
Brooklyn scored 130 points per 100 possessions in the first half of Game 2. On Saturday, it scored 128.2 per 100 in Durant's 22 first-half minutes. The ugly possessions that followed will be remembered, but the Nets showed that they had some ideas about how to attack a defense with few weak links.
On this first-quarter possession at Barclays, Irving got the ball to Durant, then immediately ran off a flare screen from Nic Claxton. Boston switched it, leaving the smaller Marcus Smart on Claxton. Irving got into the paint, drew help and found Claxton in the dunker spot with a lob:
Next play, same concept: Durant gets off the ball quickly, Claxton is in the dunker spot against Smart and Irving has space to go one-on-one because Durant and Seth Curry are on either side of him:
Here, Claxton slips a screen for Patty Mills on baseline out of bounds play. Grant Williams and Jaylen Brown bungle the switch and Durant drops the ball off to Claxton, who looks off a cutting Bruce Brown and finds Mills wide open for a 3:
This is the kind of stuff that the Nets needed to do when they couldn't go after Daniel Theis or Payton Pritchard. (It's still unclear, by the way, why they let Pritchard off the hook in Game 2.) But it is difficult and complicated. The Celtics don't make many mistakes, and, when you try to manipulate the matchups, you might be up against the shot clock by the time you get what you're looking for. Advantages disappear quickly.
Nash said that Boston's defense made Brooklyn indecisive, which resulted in turnovers and easy baskets on the other end. "We're not playing our best basketball, we're not being forceful with our actions, having that belief," he said. No one should have expected this group to morph into the 2019 Golden State Warriors team that conquered the Houston Rockets' switching scheme with constant motion and misdirection after losing Durant to a calf injury. It would have helped, however, to have fewer lapses like this:
The Nets have spent the last six months searching. On opening night against the Bucks, they started Griffin next to Claxton in the frontcourt and played James Johnson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jevon Carter on the second unit. Paul Millsap took Johnson's spot in the next game. DeAndre' Bembry was an important part of Brooklyn's defense for a while. On Christmas Day, Harden started a streak of four straight games in which he scored at least 33 points and dished at least 10 assists. In mid-March, the Nets were reportedly hopeful that Ben Simmons would be back for their last couple of regular-season games.
In a must-win game on Saturday, Brooklyn started the fourth quarter with a lineup that had no wing defenders and had never played together: Mills, Curry, Irving, Durant and Griffin. Griffin had been out of the rotation since mid-February, and he had logged six minutes in one game in the four weeks leading up to Game 3. There was never a moment in the 2021-22 season in which Nash's coaching staff did not have to compromise defense for spacing or vice versa, experimenting with imperfect solutions to its twin problems of roster imbalance and a lack of continuity. Against the Celtics, a team that provides the strongest possible contrast, the Nets ran out of time.