Brooklyn’s ball handlers must deliver down final stretch
With four games left in the regular season, the Brooklyn Nets are battling for their playoff lives.
The Nets stand as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with a 39-38 record.
If you were to tell Brooklyn fans prior to the season that the Nets would be one game over .500 and in the playoff mix with four games remaining, most would have been jumping for joy, but expectations have risen for this talented bunch.
With the way this team has improved throughout this season, anything short of a playoff berth would be a disappointment.
Brooklyn, Detroit, Miami and Orlando are all within 1.5 games of each other and battling for the final three playoff spots. The Nets have the toughest schedule of the four featuring games against Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana and Miami.
The pressing question towards the end of the season is always, will the top teams rest their starters? Particularly the Bucks and Raptors, who are virtually locked into the one and two seeds respectively.
Either way, Brooklyn's ball handlers will need to raise their intensity and level of play in the face of the biggest challenge of their young careers.
D'Angelo Russell has been stellar in his first all-star season and continued his heroics in Saturday night's win over Boston. The point guard scored 20 of his 29 points in the third quarter and dished out 10 assists in a must-win game.
Russell has been the engine that has kept the Nets going, but the play of Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert alongside Russell will ultimately determine whether the Nets can clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2016.
Dinwiddie and LeVert both excel as drive-first guards, using explosive first steps to get to the basket. However, when they are struggling to make their three-point shots, it becomes increasingly difficult to penetrate and create looks near the basket.
Dinwiddie has forced defenders to respect him as a three-point threat, shooting 34.9% from deep. This has been huge for him because unlike Russell and LeVert, he prefers not to operate in the mid-range off of the pick and roll. 91.4% of Dinwiddie's shots either come from three or within ten feet of the basket.
Instead, he uses his explosiveness in isolation. Very few defenders can stay with Dinwiddie's first step when guarding him tightly on the perimeter.
LeVert has shot just 19-72 (26.4%) from three since returning from injury. He has had trouble finishing at the rim as a result, struggling to get clean looks with defenders often giving him four feet of space on the perimeter, daring him to shoot the three.
Not only does this make it more difficult for LeVert to get to the basket, but it also clogs up the lane for the other guards in the game.
LeVert has remained confident through the struggles and he is beginning to look like his old self. He has made five threes in Brooklyn's last three games and averaged 16.3 PPG.
Continued success with his outside shot will open the floor for the entire offense, allowing Russell and Dinwiddie to penetrate and set up shooters or big men.
With Allen Crabbe sidelined, Joe Harris is the lone sharpshooter on the floor for Brooklyn. Russell has a knack for finding shooters when driving or probing in the pick and roll. This made the duo of Harris and Crabbe alongside Russell an intriguing and effective lineup.
With Crabbe injured, either Dinwiddie or LeVert and Harris are often alongside Russell. However, neither LeVert or Dinwiddie excel as catch and shoot threats. Both prefer to pull up off the dribble.
Harris can't play the whole game and defenders are often face-guarding him when he is in, so Brooklyn needs another catch and shoot threat for D'Angelo Russell to find on the perimeter.
This is where DeMarre Carroll becomes extremely important.
Carroll has frequently been the barometer of Brooklyn's success throughout the season. When he is hitting his shots, the Nets are often firing on all cylinders. The ten-year veteran adds a heightened intensity and experience on both ends of the floor.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson had been playing Carroll at power forward behind Rodions Kurucs in past weeks but has moved him back to the wing for the most part. Jared Dudley has moved back into the rotation behind Kurucs and has played well, shooting 7-11 from three in his last five games.
Dudley and Kurucs can also mix in as catch and shoot threats at power forward, but not at the same production level as Carroll.
The Nets were eaten alive by opposing big men throughout their road trip. Rudy Gobert, Montrez Harrell, Javale McGee, Jusuf Nurkić, Joel Embiid, and more dominated the boards leading to second-chance opportunities for their teams and defensive struggles for Brooklyn.
They also displayed the offensive dexterity and creativeness that Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis clearly lack.
This raises the pressure on the Nets' guards to produce offensively throughout this final stretch. Allen and Davis are incapable of creating for themselves on the offensive end, putting the full load on Brooklyn's ball handlers.
Brooklyn has taken a huge step this season in Atkinson's pace and space offense. The three-point shot is a large part of the improvement. The Nets play at a fast pace and make the fifth most threes per game in the league.
When Dinwiddie and LeVert are hitting their threes, Brooklyn is among the toughest teams in the league to beat. The entire offense opens up, giving the guards the ability to penetrate and spark ball movement.
Russell is Brooklyn's star and it goes without saying that he needs to maintain his level of play, Harris will continue to shoot with confidence, and Carroll will play his two-way game. Dinwiddie and LeVert are the X-factors.
If they can elevate their play alongside Russell, Brooklyn will come out on the other side of this playoff race and present a tough first-round matchup.
Russell, Dinwiddie and LeVert have all taken huge steps forward this season, but seldom have they taken those steps in unison. The Nets can get by with two of the three playing well against middle of the road teams, but they need all three to perform in order to beat playoff-caliber squads.
If there were ever a time for the trio to get on the same page, this would be it.