Nets Big Three Dismantles Boston with Milwaukee Showdown Looming
When I started The Nets Report four years ago, the Brooklyn Nets were on their way to their second-straight league-worst record. Devoid of any draft capital or star power for the foreseeable future, the franchise seemed destined for mediocrity.
Following the hiring of Sean Marks and commitment to a process very few took seriously, Brooklyn has undergone an unprecedented transformation. While in attendance at Brooklyn’s 130-108 Game 2 blowout, I found myself looking across the Barclays Center, amazed with the invigorated crowd and where the team stands today.
Fueled by a high-powered offense, Head Coach Steve Nash’s squad coasted to an impressive 141-126 Game 4 win in Boston Sunday night. The 141 points scored by Brooklyn marks a playoff franchise record and the 104 combined points from Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden ties an NBA playoff record for three teammates set by Boston's John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens in 1973 and Dominique Wilkins, Randy Wittman and Spud Webb in 1986.
Irving’s demeanor was the most noticeable difference from Game 3 to Game 4. The former Boston PG scored just 16 points on 6-17 shooting in Friday’s loss, frequently deferring to his counterparts. The script could not have been more different Sunday. Irving came out with a vengeance, attacking switches and getting wherever he wanted on the floor. The rowdy Boston crowd could shout its “F*** Kyrie!” chant as loud as it wanted but it would not stop the floor general from lighting the C’s up for 39 points and six made threes.
Durant was spectacular as he continues to be the steadying force on this Brooklyn squad. The former MVP dropped 42 points on 14-20 shooting from the field. The forward’s ability to get to his spots and elevate for uncontested looks at will is incredibly special.
Harden was about as solid as you can ask for, posting a career playoff best 18 assists while scoring 23 points on 8-12 shooting from the field.
There has been a clear correlation between Brooklyn’s offensive rhythm and pace of play in the opening series. The Nets pushed the pace in games 2 and 4, getting out in transition and catching the Celtics out of position to spark ball movement. Brooklyn registered 31 assists and 29 assists respectably in the wins.
Critics of Brooklyn will continue to point to their defense, and rightfully so, but the Nets showed Sunday that they are capable when they choose to flip the switch. Following a lackadaisical first quarter, Brooklyn ramped up the defensive intensity to close the half and create separation. They held Boston to 26 points on 7-21 shooting in the frame. Jayson Tatum got off just two shots and missed both.
Nic Claxton played just eight minutes in Game 4 but his defensive impact was palpable. The second-year big man posted a career-high four blocks and finished a plus-14. His defensive skillset is a luxury that will warrant more than eight minutes in coming games.
Boston’s strategy has been to target Blake Griffin on ball screens in Brooklyn’s switch everything scheme. Griffin’s man has set 71 ball screens in his 84 minutes played this series via Second Spectrum tracking and John Schuhmann. Claxton provides a quick-footed, rangy alternative on the perimeter.
Jeff Green’s presence was missed in Brooklyn’s game 3 loss and that void will look even greater if the forward misses time against Milwaukee. Green was diagnosed with a strained plantar fascia and will be re-evaluated on June 5th.
The 34-year-old has been a revelation for Brooklyn this season, serving as the team’s only true three and D forward off the bench. The 12-year veteran plays an important role defensively against bigger scorers the likes of Tatum or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Nets will face the Milwaukee Bucks in round 2 in what could be their toughest test. Milwaukee made a statement in the first round, sweeping the Miami Heat with an average win margin of 23.3 points in the last three games.
Nash’s toughest assignment will be keeping Antetokounmpo in check. The reigning MVP averaged 39.7 PPG against Brooklyn in three games this season. DeAndre Jordan may see his first minutes of the playoffs as he has been a primary option against Antetokounmpo this season. Nash could also throw Claxton, Griffin, Durant and Green at the forward.
Antetokounmpo will undoubtedly warrant attention, however, the Nets may have found their defensive blueprint in Game 4 against Boston. Tatum scored 50 points in Boston’s Game 3 win and 40 more Sunday night. The difference between the two contests was the attention Brooklyn paid to the supporting cast.
In Game 3, the Nets lost track of Marcus Smart and Evan Fournier as Tatum got hot, allowing the pair to score 40 points on 9-15 shooting from three. Nash’s squad did not drop off shooters on Sunday, allowing Tatum to get his points but holding Smart and Fournier to 9-27 shooting from the field and 4-18 from three.
“We tried to take those guys out. We know once they get it going, their team can change and become high-powered,” Durant said via Kristin Winfield. “So Tatum, he’s gonna get his looks, he’s gonna get his touches. But the other guys we did a solid job on.”
This will likely be the philosophy against Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, both of which are shooting over 39% from three for Milwaukee this season. Giannis will get his points, but if Brooklyn can keep the supporting cast in check they have the advantage with Irving, Durant and Harden on the other end.
The Nets will look to close out Round 1 on Tuesday before an animated Barclays Center crowd. If Brooklyn takes care of business the second round will begin on Saturday, June 5th.