It may not have been quite the NBA Finals preview we'd hoped for, but the Brooklyn Nets still picked up one of their most important wins of the season when they traveled to Staples Center and beat the defending champion Lakers, 109-98. With Anthony Davis, Dennis Schroder and Kevin Durant all out and multiple Lakers suffering minor injuries during the game, it was hardly the clash of the titans that we'd expected, but for Brooklyn, it represents another step towards the championship team they're hoping to build.
They entered this west coast road trip with a somewhat disappointing 15-12 record, but with four straight wins in the books and three against playoff teams, the Nets seem to be righting the ship and moving towards the top of the Eastern Conference. James Harden led the way with 23 points, 11 assists and six rebounds, but it was Brooklyn's superlative shooting that led the way. The Nets made 18 3-pointers en route to the victory. The Lakers made only eight.
The Lakers continue to grapple with the absence of Davis, and with Dennis Schroder ruled out due to the league's health and safety protocols, there is no telling when he is going to return either. LeBron James is no stranger to carrying weaker teams, but if he's going to keep the Lakers in the race for the Western Conference's top seed, he's going to have to play some of the best basketball of his career. Even a 32-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist night wasn't enough against the Nets.
With so many players out, it's hard to take too much from this game, but there were still a few notable takeaways from Brooklyn's victory.
LeBron in the post
The Nets made a calculated decision on Thursday that is going to have repercussions if these teams meet in the Finals. Check out how long LeBron waits before making his move in the post against Jeff Green.
LeBron is waiting for a double-team. He's doing so for good reason. Aside from the James-Davis pick-and-roll, the Lakers do not have a better form of offense than LeBron James post-ups, and more often than not, that is a result of defenses overcommitting. Last season, the Lakers scored 1.262 points per possession with James passing out of the post. For reference, Brooklyn's entire offense this season is scoring 1.179 points per possession this season. Only Nikola Jokic is more dangerous as a post-passer than LeBron. If you give him a 4-on-3, he's going to find the open man.
Brooklyn didn't give him the chance. LeBron spent his post possessions waiting for doubles that didn't come. Now, there are ways to manufacture those doubles. Notice DeAndre Jordan scurrying over when LeBron gets the mismatch against Tyler Johnson.
The Nets switch everything on defense. LeBron is one of the most ferocious switch-hunters in basketball. He did it plenty in the competitive portion of this game, and fourth quarters in a Finals matchup are going to feature a steady diet of it. If LeBron can get small defenders on him in the post, yes, Brooklyn is going to have to double and hope for the best.
But when they had a like-sized defender in Green, they played him straight up. LeBron won those exchanges with that turnaround jumper. It's been one of his greatest weapons this season. But it's a sacrifice the Nets are willing to make. They'd rather LeBron beat them as a scorer than as a passer. The numbers support that theory. In general, post passes are more efficient than post shots, and LeBron is no exception. But defending LeBron is a matter of probabilities. You aren't locking him down. You're picking the right poison. The Lakers scored only 98 points on Thursday. The Nets chose correctly.
Brooklyn's mathematical advantage
The Nets made 18 3-pointers to the Lakers' eight, but garbage time makes that margin appear smaller than it really was. At one point in the third quarter, the Nets had made 16 3's, and the Lakers had attempted only 17. Think about the enormous mathematical advantage that sort of margin gives the Nets. Even with garbage-time included, Brooklyn scored 30 more points from behind the arc than the Lakers.
Asking the Lakers to make up those points on a typical night isn't exactly an easy task. The Lakers and Nets average roughly the same number of free throws attempts per game. The Lakers average around five more points in the paint per night. Usually, the 3-point gap isn't going to be quite so big, but just take a look at who the Lakers are going to play in the playoffs.
3-Point Attempt Rate
3-Point Attempt Rate Rank
3-Point Percentage Rank
Los Angeles Clippers
The teams that the Lakers are going to have to beat if they win the championship all take a lot of 3's and make most of them. They all enter games with that mathematical advantage, and with the NBA's offensive baseline trending more and more towards 3's, taking so few of them (and making even fewer) is becoming more and more dangerous. The Lakers are ranked 25th in 3-point attempt rate and 18th in percentage. They are going to be at this disadvantage against everybody.
Now, can they still win the championship despite this disadvantage? Yes. Absolutely. They just did it. But this year's best shooting teams are better than they've ever been. It's going to be significantly harder than it was last season. The Lakers could make their lives easier by taking more 3's, and adding even one consistent, high-end catch-and-shoot role player would make an enormous difference. But right now, they're running into a wall of their own bricks, and it's styming everything else they want to do on offense.
The Nets can rebound
There has been a desire since Brooklyn acquired James Harden to lump rebounding in with their defense as a weakness. It's sensible on paper considering how many minutes the play without a big man, but in reality, it just hasn't been true. The Nets were ranked 15th in rebounding rate entering Thursday. They pull in 49.9 percent of available rebounds. That is as average as average gets, and against the best teams, they tend to do even better.
Take this with a grain of salt considering Davis' absence, but the Lakers are ranked fifth in rebounding rate and Brooklyn just tied them at 39 rebounds apiece. The Bucks are ranked fourth in rebounding rate and the Nets outrebounded them 55-49. The Clippers are ranked sixth and the Nets outrebounded them 50 to 45. Brooklyn's 10-1 record against teams above .500 is well-known, but much of their success against those top teams seems to be concentrated on improved rebounding. When it counts, they do just fine on the glass.
Now, will that hold up in seven games against Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis? That's hard to say. At the very least, it should probably be noted that just as the Lakers have a severe shooting disadvantage against their competition, the Nets have a rebounding disadvatange against theirs. Five of the top-six rebounding teams in the NBA, the Jazz, Sixers, Bucks, Lakers and Clippers, are championship contenders.
But a minor rebounding disadvantage is a small price to pay for everything Brooklyn gets out of its micro lineups. Defense is a genuine concern, but for the time being, getting killed on the glass just isn't. The Nets have held up quite well in that regard.