Nets need to improve defense to be true title contender

The Nets’ defense may be improved on paper, but issues clearly remain for this championship-or-bust unit.

The best teams have exposed it. Middle-of-the-road opponents have enjoyed success against it.

The offensive brilliance of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — who has refused to get vaccinated, making him ineligible to play home games — can only carry them so far.

This week was an apt example. The defense gave the Nets no shot against the Grizzlies in a lopsided loss on Monday night, then dug them a big hole Wednesday night against the mediocre Pacers. Only the return of Irving and a huge finish prevented the Nets’ losing streak from mushrooming to four.

“We gotta go out there and just do it. It’s pretty easy. And do it consistently,” Harden said. “Second, third efforts, having each other’s back. Somebody comes over and helps, the next man helps that person and just be on a string. It hasn’t been that way. We’ve let teams come in here and do what they want, get any shot that they want, and they’re capitalizing.”

Lance Stephenson drives on Kyrie Irving during the Nets’ win over the Pacers.

It wouldn’t be accurate to merely say the Nets are in a defensive rut. Despite a roster with more defense-minded players such as Jevon Carter, James Johnson and DeAndre’ Bembry, they have struggled immensely defending top teams. Against the top four-seeds in each conference, the Nets are winless in seven games and have allowed an average of 115.7 points. In those games, against the Bulls (twice), Grizzlies, Suns, Warriors, Heat and Bucks, they allowed their opponents to shoot 46.2 percent from the field, up from their season average of 43.2 percent.

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So while their overall defensive numbers are considerably better this year compared to last year (the Nets are tied with the Bucks for the eighth-best defensive rating after finishing 22nd a season ago), they have yet to show the ability to slow down the teams they will have to get past in the postseason.

Pacers' Duane Washington Jr. drives past the Nets' defense.
Pacers’ Duane Washington Jr. drives past the Nets’ defense.
NBAE via Getty Images

That hasn’t negatively impacted their record too much. Coach Steve Nash’s team is 24-12, a one-game improvement from a year ago through 36 games, even though a lot has gone wrong. Harden struggled early in the season while adjusting to the new foul rules. Blake Griffin was benched for poor performance. Joe Harris has been out since mid-November following ankle surgery. Irving just played in a game for the first time this season Wednesday night. But Harris (once he returns) and Irving won’t necessarily make the defense better, though they should improve the already formidable offense.

The Nets will get another shot against a top team Friday night at Barclays Center, when the defending-champion Bucks, who ended their season last June, come to town. The teams opened the season in Milwaukee, and the Bucks blew away the Nets by 23. The Bucks, however, will be significantly shorthanded. Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, George Hill and Jrue Holiday will be out due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, while Donte DiVincenzo (ankle) and Brook Lopez (back) are injured.

Wednesday night, the Nets overpowered the Pacers after spotting them a 13-point halftime lead. Nash said it was “unacceptable” his team didn’t show enough respect for the game. Lance Stephenson, recently added by Indiana on a 10-day contract, scored 20 first-quarter points and finished with 30 — just the second 30-point game of his well-traveled career.

“It really came down to defense and effort and [the] second half was night and day to the first,” Nash said.

There have been several wins this year after which Nash and his players have made similar comments, games in which they were able to overcome defensive shortcomings or lapses in all-out effort.

But that has not been the case against the best teams, the elite opponents they will have to get past in the spring. Those teams, at least so far, have overwhelmed the Nets’ improved defense.

Artmotion U.S.A

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