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Even after the Brooklyn Nets' fifth consecutive victory, Steve Nash described them as "a team that's trying to find itself." They'd beaten the Toronto Raptors 116-103, outscored them 35-17 in the third quarter and gotten 18 points from James Harden in the fourth, but they had also looked sloppy for stretches. In the final minute of the first half, Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes took the ball from Kevin Durant on back-to-back possessions, thievery that generated two uncontested dunks. 

"Offensively, there were pockets of play where we were really happy with it," Nash said Sunday. "We still have to push to play that way naturally and from start to finish. But that was a team that makes it very difficult to play the way we want to play."

How the Nets want to play isn't all that complicated: Put pressure on the rim, move the ball, create open shots. They isolate more often than any other team in the NBA, per Synergy Sports, a byproduct of having Harden and Durant on the roster. All isolations, however, are not created equal. Nash said recently that Brooklyn is "becoming more willing to get to second actions and then trust and move it and not play against a loaded defense." The idea, he said, is "to knock the first domino down, get into early action quickly, with pace, space and quick decisions."

On Monday against the Chicago Bulls, the Nets didn't do that often enough. They scored just 38 points in the second half and were outscored 34-13 in the competitive portion of the fourth quarter. After the winning streak ended, Nash repeatedly bemoaned their lack of paint touches down the stretch. It didn't help that the Bulls dominated the possession game, with a 15-9 advantage in offensive rebounds and nine turnovers to Brooklyn's 15.

"No flow," Harden said, diagnosing what went wrong in the final frame. "No understanding of what was going on."

Eleven games in, the Nets are 7-4, with the third-best halfcourt offense in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass, and the sixth-best halfcourt defense in the NBA. Harden has started to get his legs under him, and reserves Patty Mills (shooting 47.4 percent from 3-point range this season) and LaMarcus Aldridge (shooting 24 for 32 on long 2s, per CTG) have already swung games. Durant is taking on more offensive responsibility than he's had in years, though, and the Chicago loss -- in which he scored 38 points on 13-for-24 shooting -- reinforced Nash's point: They're much better than they were at the start of the season, but they haven't quite found themselves yet.  

That the Nets are in a more nebulous place than anticipated is not only the fault of the unvaccinated and unavailable Kyrie Irving, although his absence undeniably set them back. Brooklyn lost some shooting with the departures of Jeff Green, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the summer, and, when Harden isn't getting downhill, they don't look all that Netsy. 

In film sessions early in the season, coaches stressed the importance of spacing the floor properly, showing how taking just two or three steps can put a teammate in a better position. Too often, when Brooklyn's first action didn't work, possessions would peter out and end with a contested jumper. Bruce Brown wasn't even in the rotation for the first two games, so the coaching staff could take a look at James Johnson and find minutes for Nicolas Claxton, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Aldridge. When it rested Griffin in the third game of the season, Jevon Carter moved into the first five. 

Since then, the Nets have started the same group -- Harden, Joe Harris, Durant, Brown and Griffin -- every game. They typically put both Durant and Harden on the bench at the beginning of the second quarter, although in Chicago they didn't sit together until the fourth. Claxton, the starting center on opening night, has missed the last seven games with a non-COVID illness. His switching and vertical spacing will give the team a different dimension when he returns, the rotation will get more crowded and complicated. In the last two games, neither Millsap nor Carter played a meaningful second-half minute, while DeAndre' Bembry earned extended run. 

Aesthetically speaking, the Nets' 117-108 win over the Atlanta Hawks last week was their high-water mark. They had a season-high 34 assists on 43 field goals, and they created 48 3s, more than they did in any game last season. "We knew coming into it that they're a heavy shift team: they load up a lot in the paint," Harris said. That meant the Nets just had to force the defense to collapse and then make the simple pass. 

Even Harden, usually reluctant to take catch-and-shoot 3s, spotted up for a deep one late in the game:

If the high-quality "pockets of play" in Toronto felt significant, it's because the Raptors' style and personnel are tailor-made to make the Nets uncomfortable. You never know when Fred VanVleet will come at you with a random double-team:

Or when Nick Nurse might throw out a zone to try to catch you off-guard: 

"They're long and athletic, they can junk up the game, they can switch everything, they can go zone, they can match up, they can trap, they're great at scrambling," Nash said. "And so you have to be sharp."

When the Nets are at their best, "there's no catch, hold and look," Griffin said at Scotiabank Arena. Griffin also channeled former Brooklyn assistant coach Mike D'Antoni by saying that the ball finds energy.

Before going 4 for 7 from deep in Toronto, Griffin was just 5 for 28 on the season. Last Friday in Detroit, though, he took a charge in crunch time and ran off the court putting an imaginary hard hat on his head and imaginary steel-toed boots on his feet. These are the celebrations of the "Blue Collar Boys," a club that includes Griffin, Harris and, as of Sunday, Mills. 

Durant took a charge against Toronto and put his hard hat on in the locker room. "We notice and we appreciate Kevin's commitment to taking a charge," Griffin said, speaking on behalf of the BCB and adding that they will not just give Durant a membership. "The application process takes a while."

Silly as this is, it appears to reflect a serious commitment to defense and hustle plays, both of which are particularly important without Irving. "We're not just going to outscore people," Nash said Sunday. 

The problem is that they've had intermittent problems with defensive rebounding, and their dry spells on offense have usually coincided with opponents getting out on the break. If you're bullish on the Nets' ability to get stops, you can point to their improvement over the course of last season and the way that newcomers Bembry, Carter and Mills pester people on the perimeter. As effective as Aldridge and Griffin have been, there's room for improvement when Claxton gets back in the fold, too -- perhaps the Bulls' scorers wouldn't have caught a rhythm if they weren't getting such a steady dose of drop coverage.

Brooklyn's opponents, however, have shot terribly from long range, and this could be nothing more than good fortune. If the Nets are going to maintain their top-10 defense and become the balanced team they want to be, they're going to need to limit transition opportunities and prove this is real over the long haul. Optimism is warranted, but for now it must be the cautious kind. 

Back in September, a week before training camp, Nash dismissed the notion that his veteran team would like to fast-forward to the playoffs. This season, he said, represented "a chance to hopefully learn a lot more about ourselves," now that Brooklyn has some corporate knowledge and practice time. Even without Irving, it has already gathered some helpful information. The Nets haven't consistently played championship-caliber basketball, but, as they get more familiar with each other, you can see them rounding into form. Last season, they were 6-6 when they acquired Harden. It might have taken a while to get going this time around, but, in relative terms, they're ahead of schedule.