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Brooklyn Is Scarier Than Anyone Imagined

By nearly every metric, this Nets playoff squad is something the NBA has never seen before.

The Nets ended the 2020–21 regular season with the most efficient offense in NBA history, an achievement that included a higher true shooting percentage (61%) than the '17–18 Warriors, the previous record holder.

Those Warriors nearly lost in the Western Conference finals to James Harden’s Rockets, a group with its own high-powered offense and a switch-everything defensive scheme designed to slow down Golden State’s flurry of on- and off-ball screens. Houston didn’t win, but it knew how it might be able to. When it comes to slowing down these Nets, every other playoff team does not have the same luxury.

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden played only 202 minutes together all season, which allowed some doubt about cohesion and chemistry to creep into the frame before the playoffs started. But heading into the second round, after a historic dismantling of the Celtics when the Nets generated an unheard-of 1.28 points per possession, their identity is starting to take shape. And it’s shaking the sport.

Can anyone stop the Nets?

Before we get into the specifics, just think about this for a second: Brooklyn had the greatest offense ever this year, despite its three best players appearing in only 11% of its games at the same time. This mind-boggling fact has been overlooked for myriad reasons, one being that offense throughout the entire league skyrocketed this season, as games were played in the middle of a pandemic, with players on every team sliding in and out of the lineup on a nightly basis.

But still, the Nets had the best offense ever assembled without ever actually being assembled. Now that they’re whole, it should be asked how much better they can get. The early returns are encouraging and fascinating. The Nets didn’t just beat the Celtics; they pummeled them with an avalanche of efficiency significantly better than anything that’s ever really been seen before, despite having three individual forces of nature who had little time to mesh their skill sets in lineups that weren’t granted a test run during the regular season.

Nets coach Steve Nash could be seen imploring his team to get stops during Tuesday’s Game 5 win at the end of a timeout—“1, 2, 3 … defense!” Brooklyn isn’t atrocious on that end, but even if it were, it probably wouldn’t matter. Nash’s lineups favored offense. He wanted to make scoring the ball as easy as he possibly could for three of the greatest scorers who’ve ever lived, placing them in units that allowed them to be themselves, in space, surrounded by some of the greatest shooters who’ve ever lived.

Their starting five throughout the first round (Blake Griffin, Joe Harris, Durant, Irving and Harden) had never played together. It didn’t matter. All five can shoot (extremely well in a variety of ways), dribble and pass. That quintet was more potent than all but two postseason lineups seen in at least the last 21 years (minimum 100 minutes of action).

Instead of replacing Griffin with DeAndre Jordan as their backup five, the Nets brought shooters and ballhandlers like Landry Shamet and Tyler Johnson before inevitably subbing in the 6' 4" Bruce Brown, who’s carved out a conveniently unique role for himself screening, rolling and flash-cutting his way to advantageous buckets in the paint. Nic Claxton has seen some minutes, too, but Nash’s first-round rotation gave credence to the idea that by playing Durant at the five with no traditional big by his side, Brooklyn knew it would get whatever shot it wanted on almost every possession.

Steve Nash has unleashed a Nets offense built to dominate the NBA playoffs.

(Brooklyn’s most-used Durant lineup during the regular season featured Jeff Green—who was sidelined for most of the Celtics series with a strained plantar fascia. Among all units that logged at least 150 possessions this season, only three posted a higher offensive rating.)

Against Boston, the Nets showed the rest of the NBA exactly why all we’ve seen so far from their offense is merely the tip of an iceberg—a cataclysmic reality considering their future Hall of Fame trio averaged more points in that series than any other ever has. This leads us back to their inscrutable approach and underlying aesthetic, which is critical to understanding how the Nets can coalesce to win the NBA championship without a dependable defense.

Coming in, there was no predominant lens through which we understood the Nets' style of play because lingering injuries to their Big Three prevented them from ever developing one. Would they spread pick-and-roll defenses to death? Would they veer into the split-cuts that became a calling card for the Warriors? Set flare screens and pindowns for Durant and Irving until the other team tapped out? Would they continue to play fast or more closely resemble those steady Rockets that were built around Harden’s ability to pick one player on the other team and then torment them inside a cocoon?

So far, it’s the latter. According to Synergy Sports, Brooklyn started a league-leading 12.8% of its possessions with an isolation play during the regular season. That led the league but hardly reflected its dominant thought process on every play.

Against Boston, iso-ball became a core tenet of the Nets' basketball philosophy and the easiest way to describe their on-court persona. In the first round, Brooklyn almost tripled its isolation frequency, spending 31.4% of possessions going one-on-one, intentionally placing weaker Celtics defenders on an island with Harden, Durant and Irving, then setting every boat along the shore on fire.

According to Synergy Sports, that isolation frequency was the highest mark any team has had in the playoffs since at least 2005, which is as far back as its database goes. In other words, the Nets leveraged hero ball even more than those Rockets teams, which had conceivably pushed the strategy to its limits. This makes sense; 53 players isolated on at least 100 possessions across the league this season. The most efficient of them was Bulls guard Zach LaVine. Behind him was Durant. Then Harden. Then, you guessed it, Kyrie.

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Durant and Irving have had undeniable success in isolation at earlier points in their careers, but it’s Harden’s claim to fame. In the first round against Boston, he used a career-high 55% of his possessions attacking someone one-on-one, maximizing a process that previously could not be stopped without extreme defensive measures (e.g., swarming Harden before he crosses half court or doubling off a teammate who can’t shoot—like Russell Westbrook). In Brooklyn, thanks to the unprecedented talent around him, Harden’s isolations must be defended straight up, which essentially forces the other team to write its own obituary. He generated 0.995 points per possession out of isolation plays during the 2018 postseason. Right now he’s at a career-best 1.34.

Harden demands unrelenting focus from all five defenders when he holds the ball. Give it to him and life gets easier for Durant and Irving, two volcanoes who don’t need an extra millimeter or millisecond to cover the court in ash. When Harden isolated against his handpicked victim (in the play below, it’s Jabari Parker) the Celtics would do their best to shrink the floor and keep him outside the paint. From there, the Nets would respond with a quick flare screen for Harris, KD or Kyrie.

Alone, this setup can’t be stopped. It doesn’t matter who has the ball in these situations, either. Durant and Irving can make the same pass and force the same weariness out of a defense trying to stop them from getting downhill.

It’s fair to look at the depleted Celtics (they didn’t have Jaylen Brown for the entire series, and a toe injury limited Rob Williams to 46 minutes) and believe other offenses could do the same thing. But Brooklyn’s natural shotmaking ability across several positions can neutralize any defense’s best individual parts by homing in on the weakest link. No matter who Brooklyn’s opponent is, there will be an opportunity to create a mismatch.

Against Boston, Parker, Evan Fournier, Tristan Thompson and Kemba Walker were irresistible prey. Against the Bucks in Round 2, it’ll be Bryn Forbes, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton and pretty much everybody else not named Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton or Giannis Antetokounmpo. (P.J. Tucker and Bobby Portis will scratch and claw, but the Nets will be fine if any of their stars match up with those two without help.)

It was always hard enough to hide when Harden was the hunter. Put Irving and Durant on the court with him, then throw another two shooters/playmakers out there, and getting consistent stops becomes an impractical exercise. Once a mismatch is created, double teams that feel like a solution only create a different set of problems.

The Celtics actually did a pretty good job rotating out of their own aggression whenever they threw two at the ball, but to consistently pull it off over the course of a game, let alone a series, isn’t humanly possible. Watch this play below. It’s a great example of how Brooklyn’s isolations can have a domino effect.

Boston switches off the ball when Durant sets a back screen on Fournier, creating an iso opportunity for himself in the midpost. As he starts to back Fournier down, Irving cuts through the paint, which drags Romeo Langford away from Harris (who’s now open on the weak side because Tatum—Harris’s new man—needs to help on Durant). Once Harris catches Durant’s skip pass, the Celtics are dead in the water.

During his first playoff run with the Warriors in 2017, according to Synergy Sports, Durant isolated on 12.3% of his possessions (or 3.3 per game). Right now he’s at 32.7% and 10.2 possessions per game. During his championship run with the Cavaliers in 2016, Irving averaged 0.842 points per possession on isolation plays. Now he’s at 1.0, at a slightly higher frequency than it was in ‘16.

Boston switched most screens not because it believed that tactic would stagnate Brooklyn’s attack (which was Houston’s thought process when it attempted to dethrone the Warriors in 2018 and '19), but more often because it had no choice. Executing anything else when Harden, Irving or Durant calls for a pick would be even worse. As Nash told reporters during the series: "We can score in isolation, but the more the ball moves, we knock the first domino down and the other team's chasing, we're excellent in those situations.”

Even against a defense that traps, rotates and recovers, the possession will almost always come down to individual defenders trying to win a dramatically uphill battle.

The Nets have three five-alarm fires with or without the ball. They run dribble handoffs with Griffin and Harris. They free Durant up with his signature pindowns. They let Harden dance the shot clock down before launching a patented step-back three. They sprint off misses, battle on the offensive glass and roll out of bed with a dozen free throw attempts before the game even begins. They can dominate broken plays and regularly drill contested pull-up twos. Nothing about their offense is fair. Everything is excessive and overwhelming. Force them to slow the pace down and, well, they just averaged 117.7 points per 100 possessions in the half court. (The league average is 98.7.) Speed them up and the game will end before it begins.

Harden, Durant and Irving are established, extravagant talents deserving of their own supporting casts. Give them a secondary playmaker, some spot-up threats, a rim-rolling big and wings who can lock down the other team’s greatest threat and they’ll make magic happen. Watching them in their first playoff series, in 130 minutes of relentless carnage, seamlessly outscoring the Celtics by 66 points with an effortlessness that made it feel as if none of the stars was actually having to sacrifice anything to coexist, was one of the most paralyzing things ever spotted on a basketball court. 

Brooklyn is still evolving, but the volume at which it used isolation plays to throttle Boston created a less ambiguous way to understand what it may be going forward: an advanced version of Harden’s Rockets (whose head coach, Mike D’Antoni, is now Nash’s lead assistant). Except instead of one Harden, there are now three: actual Harden, complementary 7-foot Harden and less predictable, more delicate Harden. All three can get a bucket whenever and wherever they want. They’re used to double teams and have faced and overcome every modern defensive coverage. On the same team at the same time, their scoring options are infinite.

The Nets were always a juggernaut hiding in plain sight, tantalizing and mysterious in all the harmonious (or not) ways they could function. Now that they’re finally a complete version of what they were intended to be, it’s easy to see they’re even more terrifying than most imaginations even allowed. Barring injury, beating them four times in seven tries is shaping up to be one of the tallest tasks in NBA history. Whether they’re truly the greatest offense the NBA has ever seen can be sorted out when their season ends. Until then, what they are is a problem unlike any the basketball universe has ever known.

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