Down two in the closing seconds of the Clippers home game against Brooklyn on Sunday, Kawhi Leonard squared up against James Harden. If you’re L.A., it’s the matchup you wanted: Leonard, an MVP candidate, against Harden, a pedestrian defender. Yet as Leonard drove, Harden stayed with him, forcing Leonard to extend his left hand, drawing a game-clinching offensive foul.
A Nets game decided by a defensive stop would have been laughable last month, when Brooklyn’s high octane offense was being overshadowed by a defense that was getting shredded quarterly. There was the 272 points the Nets surrendered in back-to-back losses in Cleveland; the 149 against Washington; the 122 against Detroit. Scoring on Brooklyn, it seemed, required little more than effort.
The Nets have not evolved into the ’89 Pistons, but something has happened the last few weeks. The defense is tightening up. The Lakers scored 98 points in a loss to Brooklyn last Thursday. A week earlier, the Nets held Indiana to 94. DeAndre Jordan, who looked like a fossilized version of his former self in the weeks after Jarrett Allen was shipped out, has come alive. Jeff Green, who has dipped in and out of the starting lineup, has picked it up. The disjointedness the Nets showed in the weeks after the Harden trade has given way to stretches of cohesion.
Said Steve Nash, “We’re better at our primary defense.”
The Nets are one of the NBA’s hottest teams, winners of six straight, five of which came on a recent West Coast road trip. Some of it is easy to explain. The chemistry is better. Brooklyn gutted its roster to acquire Harden. Allen was its defensive backbone. The growth from where the Nets started in January to where they are now, says Harden, “is like night and day.”
“We’re playing hard and we’re playing smart,” Harden said. “We have had time to practice, time to go over things on both ends of the [floor]. We know what we’re doing defensively. Offensively, we know what we’re doing. We know our spots on the floor. It makes the game a lot easier.”
Harden has been as advertised. The ex-Rocket still has to own the two week stretch where he sleepwalked through Houston’s season. But in recent weeks, Harden has re-entered the MVP discussion. He’s averaging 25 points per game with the Nets, stuffing the stat sheet with 11.4 assists and 8.3 rebounds in 38.4 minutes per game. He’s been a playmaker, like in a 16-assist effort against Golden State, while releasing the Hulk-like scorer when needed, as it was in a 38-point outburst against Phoenix last week.
Oh … and the Nets are 13-5 since Harden got to town.
His chemistry with Kyrie Irving has developed quickly. There were legitimate questions as to how the two would mix. Irving signed on to play with Kevin Durant, a close friend. He did not volunteer to play with Harden, a ball dominant guard. Yet Irving has embraced an off the ball, role, allowing Harden to initiate the offense, freeing Irving to do what he does best: score. Approaching the All-Star break, Irving is averaging career-bests in points, field goal percentage, offensive rating, net rating and effective field goal percentage.
“You want to be successful at anything, you’ve got to invest in people.” Irving said. “You’ve got to understand the human element. Not everyone is going to be the same or have the same thought process. We’re just coming to understand that we’re all different, we’re all individuals but we can hold each other to a standard where we all meet. I think we’ve been able to communicate that in a very unique way.”
Scoring, though, has never been a concern. The Nets have three bonafide snipers, complemented by Joe Harris, the NBA’s best three-point shooter (50.2%). Brooklyn leads the league in offensive efficiency, with Durant, Harden and Irving each remarkably ranking in the top-ten in fourth quarter production. Jordan has shown flashes of playmaking ability from the high post while Bruce Brown’s willingness to cut has led to easy shots.
It’s the recent defense that’s been eye-opening. Irving traces the improvement back to February 9th, when the Pistons ran a layup line on the Nets, shooting 56%. Irving called the team average after that, a description he says rippled through the locker room. Since then, Brooklyn’s defense has picked up, giving the offense the opportunity to push the Nets to double-digit wins.
“You could see it on the floor, we weren’t connected at all, especially going against sub. 500 teams,” Irving said. “That was embarrassing. We want to demand that standard of excellence.”
The Nets defense has not reached excellent—statistically, Brooklyn has been middle of the pack the last few weeks—but it doesn’t need to be. The offense is only going to get better (Durant has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury) meaning a defense that hovers around the top half of the NBA will be more than enough. The Nets will continue to scour the free agent market for defensive-minded bodies (Iman Shumpert and André Roberson have been dusted off and signed in recent weeks) and Brooklyn will be an attractive destination for any players bought out in the next month.
That’s scary for other would-be contenders. For a while it appeared the pathway to beating Brooklyn was by outscoring. That path isn’t as clear anymore. “No team is going to win anything in this league if they don't get stops,” said Irving. “It’s about time.”